John Simmons

Dr. John L. Simmons, 82, died on September 1, 2020 at home in Chicago.  He lived a life devoted to public service and family. 

Dr. Simmons grew up in Decatur, Illinois, graduated from Philips Exeter Academy and served in the US Army at Fort Leonardwood before attending Harvard College. At Harvard, he studied Middle Eastern history and met his future wife, Adele Smith. He earned a doctorate in economics from St. Antony’s College at Oxford in 1966, and he and Adele married that year.  

The newlyweds moved to Tunisia where John directed the Harvard North Africa Project for two years. The Simmons then returned to Cambridge, MA where John taught development economics at Harvard and did consulting work on behalf of the United Nations Development Program. 

In early 1972, Simmons became an economist at the World Bank, while Adele worked at Princeton University.  He worked on agriculture and education projects in countries including Liberia, Tunisia, Pakistan and China, and in the late 1970s, led a grassroots movement within the Bank known as the Participation Advisory Committee (PARTAC), which advocated for more employee participation in management decisions as a means of improving the Bank’s effectiveness. 

Simmons moved to Amherst in 1977, where his wife was President of Hampshire College.  He continued to work for the World Bank until 1980 when he left to launch an independent consulting and writing career. His first large project was the research and writing of a management book with journalist Bill Mares, Working Together:  Employee Ownership in Action (Knopf, 1983) which was well received in the field.   Studs Terkel interviewed Simmons about the book on his radio program.

Based at the University of Massachusetts, Simmons spent the 1980s running his consulting firm, Participation Associates.  He served clients in the US and abroad and taught management seminars in China and the Soviet Union. He also served as president of the Association for Quality and Participation and as executive director of the Massachusetts Joint Commission on Employee Involvement, Ownership, and Economic Development.

The Simmons family relocated to Chicago in 1989 when Adele became president of the MacArthur Foundation.  In the 1990s, when Russia began its transition from communism toward a market-based economy, Simmons traveled frequently to Russia to teach high-performance management and to help Russian firms develop strategies to face their new economic reality.  He was delighted to watch Russian workers–after a lifetime of top-down communism–become empowered to make their own decisions using the leadership skills and analysis methods that were part of John’s approach. 

Simmons also became an outspoken public advocate for employee ownership within Russia’s new privatized economy.  He contributed frequent op-eds in the Russian press in support of employee ownership.  He produced two documentaries for Russian television about labor issues; and Russian journalists frequently cited him as a labor expert. In March 1992, Simmons participated in a debate on Russian television with Anatoly Chubais, the head of the Russian State Property Committee, in which Simmons defended the efficacy of employee-owned enterprises. 

When the Simmons moved to Chicago, John focused on the Chicago School Reform movement. His goal was to empower teachers and principals to decide for themselves how to make meaningful changes for their students. This interest eventually blossomed into his not-for-profit education consulting firm called Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI), which over the course of nearly twenty years achieved significant improvements in schools across the nation, especially in Chicago. In 2003, the Erikson Institute awarded Simmons an honorary doctorate for his education reform work. In 2006, Simmons wrote and edited the book Breaking Through: Transforming Urban School Districts. In 2010, SLI served as the lead witness for the Hearing on Turnaround Schools held by the US House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.  

John Simmons loved tennis, hiking, fishing, and camping, and spent time with his family at their summer home in Ontario.  He is survived by his wife, Adele Simmons; his son Ian, his wife Liesel and their daughters; his daughter, Erica and her husband, John Balz and their daughter; and son, Kevin.

A memorial service will be planned at a later date.  Memorial contributions can be made to Chicago LAMP (in support of BlueStreak Education) or to Youth Guidance.   BlueStreak is an innovative digital solution that transforms how students learn math by integrating the elements found in current industry games with the latest research on skill development.  Chicago Lawndale Amachi Mentoring Program will serve as the fiscal agent for support for BlueStreak. Youth Guidance creates and implements school-based programs that enable at risk children to overcome obstacles, focus on their education and to succeed in school and life. Please make checks payable to Chicago LAMP with BlueStreak-John Simmons in the memo section and mail to 3508 W Ogden Ave, Chicago, IL 60623 or to Youth Guidance with John Simmons in the memo section and mail to:  1 N LaSalle St #900, Chicago, IL 60602.