Art historian, actor, beloved husband
Leonard Simon of Claremont died gently and painlessly in his own bed on June 3, 2014. He was 77.
Mr. Simon was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1936 to Pattie and William Walter Simon and was the youngest of 14 brothers and sisters. He graduated from Norristown High in 1954, and soon enrolled in the Army Air Force Reserve for active duty. He served three years in an army hospital as an intern. Thereafter, he completed training with the 4th guided missile battalion of the US forces, that prepared troops to deploy with the Nike Ajax anti-aircraft system.
Mr. Simon was a fan and a jubilant participant in many sports, including basketball, football and track. With a Palm Springs delegation, he went to Amsterdam to compete in the 1998 Gay Games.
He was also a versatile entertainer—he sang, danced and acted on the stage and in film and television. He played several instruments and sang with a band. He was startlingly handsome, his loved ones noted; he also had a great speaking voice and an athletic body. Add to this a charismatic personality, which gave him a great stage presence. He acted in theaters across the country from New York to Palo Alto, San Jose and San Francisco. His best roles were as Prospero in The Tempest, Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and Randall in Slow Dance on a Killing Ground. Multitudinous TV and cinema credits are on his IMDB.com page. Notable were two episodes of Julia of 1973, and a role as an important extra in the Charles Bronson film, The Stone Killer.
As an art historian, Mr. Simon was the registrar of the Leland Stanford Junior Museum from 1964 to 1970. In 1976, he served as author of the catalogue raisonné for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art landmark traveling exhibit “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” writing the biographic entries for each artist and the object descriptions in the catalogue.
In her 2011 book, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, Bridget R. Cooks writes that the exhibit’s curator, David C. Driskell, selected Mr. Simon as his research assistant “because of his comprehensive grasp of art history.”
In a 1986 Los Angeles Times article, “Palette of Passion from Black Artists,” Mr. Simon reflected on how, for black artists, art was about more than self-expression.
“During the ‘60s, black artists used their creativity as a vehicle for social change,” he emphasized. “Black artists, previously able to show their work in black museums and galleries only, let the cultural Establishment know about their art. They were saying, ‘Our civil rights allow us to be artists too. You have to understand that even if our art is different, even if we’re wearing Afros and corn rows.’” He was an instructor in the Ethnic Studies Department of UC Riverside for nine years, teaching classes like black art history. And from 1977 to 1980, he was a deputy director of the California Fine Arts Council.
He was also active socially and politically. He was jailed at age 18 for demonstrating during the 1955 bus boycott of Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama. He was also involved in the 1960 Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro. While demonstrating against the department store’s policy of racial segregation, he was spat at and arrested. For over a year, he was in a jail where he was badly beaten several times. This sordid experience left a deep mark on his soul.
From 1975 to 1976, he was the housing consultant of the Watts Community Housing Corp., which erected a 40-unit housing complex plus a recreation building in Watts veritably on the ruins of the 1965 riot. He was an officer of Black And White Men Together and a force in the Los Angeles Leader Conference, which organized citywide units dispensing AIDS information, advice and care long before the state of California acted to combat and ameliorate the effects of the epidemic.
Leonard is survived by his spouse, Gerald M. Ackerman, with whom he shared 52 happy years of life, and by four generations of adoring nieces and nephews.
A celebration of Mr. Simon’s life will take place on Sunday, July 27 at 5 p.m. in Bridges Hall of Music on the campus of Pomona College (150 E. Fourth St. in Claremont). A reception will be held afterwards in Lebus Court, directly behind Bridges Hall of Music.
In lieu of flowers, Mr. Simon’s family asks that you consider a donation to one of his favorite causes, Doctors Without Borders.