Photography

John C "Jack" Simons Jr.

November 9, 2020

Obituary

 

Jack Simons passed away from age on Nov. 9, 2020, five days after thoroughly enjoying celebrations of his hundredth birthday. 

 

Jack and his late wife, Hildred, had been residents of Brookhaven at Lexington, MA since 2013. They enjoyed the community and treasured the staff, who provided them with exceptional and loving care. The couple lived in Belmont, MA from 1952 to 1959, Weston, MA from 1959 to 2013, and had enjoyed summers in Wellfleet, MA for almost as many years.

 

John Crankshaw Simons Jr. (Jack) was born Nov. 4, 1920 in Frankford, PA, then an enclave of British emigrants active in the Swedenborgian church. Jack's extended family included grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a great-aunt. Born shortly after a series of family tragedies, a world war, and a pandemic (which had been particularly risky to pregnant women), Jack was a cherished delight. 

 

Jack’s father, John Senior, had been an engineering student at Penn State when war was declared, and served in the Ambulance Corps in Maestre, Italy. His mother, Geraldine McDonough Nice, was also from a Frankford Swedenborgian family, daughter of a Baldwin Locomotive designer, and graduated in 1917 from Drexel with a degree in domestic science. The couple married in 1918, and John worked at the family factory, Simons & Struve Hosiery mill, and was then employed by the utility company, helping transform Philadelphia to electric streetlights. Jack's younger brother, Kenneth, was born in 1924.

 

During the Depression, Geraldine went to work as a teacher, and John started a side business building sailboats. The SturdiCraft Company endured for decades, building Comets that routinely dominated competition in the primary class regatta at Stone Harbor, NJ. Jack, Ken, and their father John, "Pop," won many races. Among the many boats they built and sailed, the Swallow and the Jackenpop Too remain in the family. Jack's college team at Drexel won the Mid-Atlantic trophy in 1942, and he was co-founder and first commodore of the MIT blue-water sailing team. Jack taught his children to sail and enjoyed family cruising along the New England coastline.

 

Jack graduated from Frankford High School in 1937 and took a degree in chemical engineering at Drexel in 1942, becoming an active member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering fraternity. Somewhere in his technical education he learned drafting, machining, metallurgy and glassblowing. His first job was with the Atlas Blasting Company in Tamaqua, PA, engineering secure processes and building explosive devices. In later life he noted that he was mostly testing blasting caps and was assigned to a distant shack by himself for this critical task.

 

He volunteered to join the Navy in 1943, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was trained in the twelfth class on the USS Prairie State, a ship moored in New York harbor as an emergency classroom for new naval officers. On graduation, he was selected for the submarine service and trained at New London, CT. Later in life, he said he volunteered for submarines because a friend of a classmate said it sounded like fun. Jack was assigned to a Balao-class boat under construction in Portsmouth, NH, the USS Pilotfish, SS-386. He served on the Pilotfish for all six of her patrols, covering 75,075 miles during 313 days on Pacific patrol, a thousand dives, submerged over 3,000 hours. The ship won five battle stars in support of operations including Saipan and Iwo Jima and was present at Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremony. Jack went briefly ashore on the Japanese mainland only recently surrendered; later he described it as perhaps more risky than he realized at the time. In July 1946, the Pilotfish was decommissioned, and sent to Bikini as a test ship in the Baker atomic blast. The ship is now part of a memorial dive park near the atoll.

 

Jack used the G.I. Bill to continue his education, completing a doctorate in physics at MIT in 1950, under the direction of noted educator and microwave expert, John C. Slater. He was awarded an honorary fellowship by Tau Beta Pi in support of his studies. Working for Westinghouse, he helped design the reactor for the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, and developed a working system for successfully detecting and destroying low-flying aircraft. At National Research Corporation, he assisted in use of high-vacuum technology to pioneer innovations in support of the space program. (Among the offshoots of the work were instant coffee and frozen orange juice, the latter of which NRC spun off into the Minute Maid company.) He established a consulting firm, working with aerospace companies including Douglas, Boeing, and Perkin Elmer, to build space chambers designed to test working parts for compliance with satellite specifications. He was named a Senior Fellow of the American Rocket Society in 1961. He contributed to scientific journals and chaired conferences. (In 1966, as leader of a space technology conference, he was asked to participate in a photo op with a television actor in a struggling new series: William Shatner. So he also helped save Star Trek.) Jack produced sixteen patents in his career.

 

In 1976, Jack and a colleague, Dave Cushing, started a production company in space rented from the Waltham Watch Factory in Waltham, MA. MicroCoatings, Inc. used vacuum technology to apply thin-film coatings to surfaces. Optical filters, engineered to permit only very specific wavelengths of light to pass through, were used by clients in the aerospace industry, defense, and scientific instrumentation, including blood analysis. The equipment used was a mix of hand-crafted machines, and salvaged and repurposed auction stock. One part manufactured by MicroCoatings is aboard the probe Voyager, which continues to operate from outside the solar system. In subsequent years, the company relocated to Burlington, MA and then to Westford, MA, where it was acquired by Barr Optical, Inc.

 

While Jack had an extensive career, he also enjoyed the rest of his life. He met Hildred Dodge at a dance in grad school. She was a nurse at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. They married in 1949. Hildred passed away a month before their 70th wedding anniversary. Their son, Jack III, was born in Pittsburg, PA; son Alan and daughter Normandy were born in Boston, MA. 

 

Jack taught his children to sail, to ski, and to hike; to travel inexpensively and joyfully; and to enjoy good food, wine, and dessert. He was great helping with math homework, which with him felt more like a game than like work. He and Hildred were both involved in Scouting. Beginning in 1967, when equipment was more primitive, he led several groups of his Boy Scouts on week-long trips to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. During one ascent of Mt. Washington, a thunderstorm forced a memorable strategic retreat to a sheltered area, producing both a safe outcome and a great teaching moment. Jack completed his quest to summit all of the 4,000-foot peaks in his late seventies.

 

Long before the advent of desktop publishing, he lettered and illustrated family Christmas cards. He built a barn for Normandy's pony, and helped Hildred look after Friendly, a retired horse, for over a decade. Jack enjoyed animals and had two Boxer dogs, Mynheer von Wrinklepuss and Liesl. In later life he adopted one of Alan's cats, and Jack and Dingo spent many happy hours together.

 

Jack enjoyed serving as official spouse of the director of John Winthrop School. He helped Hildred turn a vacant city lot into a playground now owned by the city of Boston, built playground equipment, helped paint the school, volunteered at the street fair, and was a genial host for every school event or dinner party.

 

He embraced the nickname of "Adoo" and enjoyed being a grandfather to Emily, Evan, Elise, Elliot, Charlotte, and John; and becoming a great-grandfather to Cole and Ray. When Jack and Hildred built two vacation homes on Cape Cod, the first in 1989, he designed the structures and oversaw construction with the intention of creating a family retreat. For years, the family held annual reunions at the Cape houses, and continue to enjoy the properties.

 

Jack and Hildred loved to travel. She accompanied him on annual business trips to Europe, and they formed lasting friendships there. They went to Mexico as high school chaperones. They traveled to the Soviet Union shortly before it collapsed, journeyed along part of the Silk Road in China, and visited the Galapagos. In later years they enjoyed birding trips around New England, and to Nova Scotia. The family made a trip to Europe in 1964, buying a Volkswagen bus in Germany and traveling about in it. They did it again in 1973 and enjoyed an unplanned adventure in Budapest, culminating in an overnight stay with a local family.

 

Grandchildren were taken along on subsequent trips to Europe, and elsewhere. Family working abroad gave Hildred and Jack an excuse to visit Egypt and Italy. Travel always included enjoying local foods, visiting museums, and attending musical events. 

 

Jack and Hildred were long-time members and supporters of the Boston Museum of Science, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Huntington Theatre, Wheelock Family Theater, the Boston Ballet, the Opera Company of Boston, Revels, Inc., Wheelock College (now a school of BU), Haverford and Bryn Mawr colleges, and the Mass. Audubon Society. They were active in conservation, supporting purchase of lands in Weston, on the Cape, and in Maine. They were also active in anti-war protests. Although he was proud of his service, Jack recognized that the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were very different. He marched in Washington against the second inauguration of Richard Nixon, and he and Hildred routinely protested the Gulf wars, holding placards in Weston Center.

 

In later years, Jack began revisiting his time on the submarine. He joined his fellow shipmates and thoroughly enjoyed reunions. As he was an ensign when he joined the ship, he was perpetually known as Junior. Jack researched the Pilotfish history, and began giving presentations about his experiences to local history associations. Two of his articles were published, one in a compilation of World War II memoirs by Brookhaven residents, and one of Weston residents. (He and his brother began to compare notes on their war experience, once 50 years had passed and security concerns had lessened. They discovered that while Jack had been zipping about underwater, Ken had been on Army shipping, and they had unknowingly crossed paths several times.) He went back to Pearl Harbor on a pilgrimage, after a 62-year absence, and took Hildred and two grandchildren along. The Navy did an exceptional job of honoring Jack. While touring the Pilotfish's sister ship, the Bowfin, he was explaining his job and life on the sub to his grandchildren, and a large group of interested tourists attached themselves to the tour. Jack loved a crowd.

 

He was fortunate to live in a facility that took Covid-19 protections very seriously. Since March, his family had been limited to twice-weekly Zoom calls, but he greatly enjoyed seeing everyone, and hearing what his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were doing with their lives. While the intent was to keep in touch with Jack, the whole family enjoyed talking to each other during quarantine. 

 

In celebration of his 100th birthday, the staff at his home threw him a careful party that included singing and dancing. He was congratulated by the commander of the Atlantic submarine fleet, and the governor of Massachusetts. In 1925 Jack remembered donating pennies to the drive to restore the USS Constitution; the Constitution Museum and the ship's crew collaborated to fire a cannon in his honor, and then sent him the shell casing as a souvenir. Jack loved it all. For his birthday, he was allowed an in-person visit from son Jack, who shared his birthday as well as his name, and beloved daughter-in-law Kathy. They delivered a meal from favorite restaurant La Campagna, which included oysters and was greatly appreciated.

 

Jack and Hildred had many friends and loved spending time with them. He was very social, and retained a quick, self-deprecating wit to the end. (Rather than acknowledge failing memory, when asked if he could recall the name of neighbors from twenty years ago, he considered and replied, "I don't believe they had a name.") In later years he and his brother Ken enjoyed a close relationship that included traveling and vacationing together.

 

Jack was preceded in death the previous year by his beloved wife, Hildred, and his brother, Ken. He is survived by his children and their dearly loved spouses: Jack and Kathy Simons, Alan and Laurie Simons, Normandy and John F. Helmer; by his grandchildren: Emily Simons (and Nick Stocks), Evan (and Lauren) Simons, Elise Simons, Elliot Simons (and Cathy Niland), Charlotte Helmer (and Mike Land), and John E. Helmer; and by his great-grandsons, Cole and Ray Simons.


Gifts in Jack’s memory may be sent to Mass Audubon (MassAudubon.com) or the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC.org). No public service will be held.

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