Simmons frail but recovering well

Lillian Gilliam, with her father Philip Simmons at Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community, said that after many years of hard work, 'he's just worn out.'

Tyrone Walker

An informal lunch party a week ago revealed that legendary Charleston craftsman Philip Simmons is getting along just fine.

Rumors and speculation swirled a few months ago when he had to be hospitalized.

As precious as the world- renowned master blacksmith is to this community, everyone who had heard the street talk was gravely concerned.

The rumors aren't true, said Lillian Gilliam, his daughter, who dined with him May 24 at his new home, Read Cloister, the skilled nursing facility at Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community on James Island.

In fact, Simmons and his friend Rossie Colter, who is also project administrator of the Philip Simmons Foundation, said that barring some medical obstacle, he plans to be at the upcoming celebrations of his 96th birthday, which is officially June 9.

On Sunday and Monday, a concert, 3 MO' DIVAS + 1, is planned for 5 p.m. at his downtown church, St. John's Reformed Episcopal, 91 Anson St.

The Piccolo Spoleto Festival event is this year's reprise of annual celebration concerts for Simmons.

Singers include Marilyn Gross, Annette McKenzie Anderson, Latonya Wrenn and Gwendolyn Jenifer, accompanied by pianist Alvy Powell, harpist Kathleen Wilson, bass guitarist Ken Kuhn and drummer James Parker Jr.

The repertoire will feature grand opera, popular music, bel canto, gospel, patriotic songs, show tunes and American folk music. General admission is $15 and tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster (888-374-2656) or the festival box office at Gaillard Municipal Auditorium.

Recent talk of his decline could have been spurred by the fact that Simmons had been hospitalized several times since Thanksgiving, once just before the holiday, then again soon after, Gilliam said. A third episode came after Christmas.

Simmons moved into Bishop Gadsden three weeks ago on the heels of a physical rehab stint at Driftwood Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in North Charleston.

Gilliam, 70, of Ladson, said she was prepared to enlist three attendants to help her care for her father, but said he had told her some time ago that he would prefer a nursing facility to staying home and imposing on family and friends.

"He made me promise," she said. "We talked about it a lot over the years, so when this happened we agreed to come here (Bishop Gadsden)."

Simmons now uses a wheelchair to get around, and he has periodic bouts of severe pain. He can stand by himself, however.

His food is pureed, but his appetite is healthy, Gilliam said. "He still likes his okra soup."

Joining Simmons and Gilliam for lunch were Colter and his biographer, John Vlach. Vlach spoke eloquently about Simmons and his place in history. "He's so heroic," he said.

What had everyone alarmed was a rumor that Simmons had had a stroke.

"It wasn't that," Gilliam said. "There was no stroke. The doctors said his body has caught up with him.

"All those years of very hard work, he's just worn out."

Talk of the celebration during the luncheon seemed to brighten the look on Simmons' face, Gilliam said.

Okra does wonders for old-line Charlestonians.