Annapolis institution 'a roving counselor' 'Zastrow' Simms feels at home with students

February 09, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Joseph Edward "Zastrow" Simms walks the halls of Annapolis Middle School with the same concern for his community as he had when he walked Annapolis neighborhoods, calling for peace, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

"I'm sort of like a roving counselor," Simms said of his job, in which he ushers students to class, soothes troubled youths, monitors school bus rides and makes home visits.

His employer, the Anne Arundel County school system, calls him a community liaison. But to many in Annapolis, Simms is a peacemaker who bridges the gap between the black community and white political leaders, an educator who teaches children about the mistakes of his past and a community activist who took hundreds of Annapolis children to professional sports games and Broadway plays.

And whether he's in a school cafeteria, walking along Clay Street or in the mayor's office, everybody knows him.

"Zastrow can walk in among a bunch of rednecks and be respected," said Roger W. "Pip" Moyer, former Annapolis mayor and a lifelong friend. "And he'd be liked by most of them."

During years of segregation in the small-town atmosphere of the state capital, Simms gained fame among blacks and whites as an outstanding athlete at Bates High School, skilled in baseball, basketball and football. It was in that time that he took on the name of his hero, Naval Academy quarterback Robert "Zug" Zastrow.

Simms' desire for fancy clothes and women, he said, quickly led to a criminal record with more than 70 burglary and petty larceny charges -- most of which ended in convictions. From the time he was 17, Simms was in and out of prison, wasting his prime years. His five-year marriage, from which he had two children, ended in divorce in 1960.

L But when his mother died in 1967, he turned his life around.

"I felt my getting into trouble was the cause of her death," said Simms, now 62. "I knew I had lost my best friend."

One year later, when East Coast cities were burning in the wake of the King slaying, Moyer, then mayor of Annapolis, pulled strings to get his old buddy out of the state prison in Baltimore for a few days to walk the streets with him, urging peace among residents.

To this day, Moyer, now head of the Annapolis Housing Authority, asks Simms to accompany him on late-night tours of housing projects designed to pinpoint drug-infested areas.

The drug dealers "know he's not afraid of them," said Annapolis police Maj. Norman Randall, who arrested his former schoolmate more than once in the old days.

"There's not too many guys that would run up in Zastrow's face -- even at 62," Randall said.

In 1972, after then-Gov. Marvin Mandel granted Simms a full pardon, Moyer helped him land a job in the city's urban-renewal program. Later, he was named director of the Stanton Community Center. That's where he gained his broadest support.

Friends tell how Simms had the uncanny ability to get 200 children into Baltimore Colts or Orioles games with only 50 tickets. He got sports figures to visit the community center, sent neighborhood young people on trips to see plays on Broadway and set up trips for senior citizens to the Pocono Mountains.

"He did everything in his ability to make sure children had upward mobility in life," said Alderman Samuel Gilmer, a Ward 3 Democrat.

And Simms said he will not stop his work in the community that has given so much to him.

"Annapolis," he said, "is the best thing that ever happened to me."

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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