If exhaustion had a look, if fear had a face, it would be that of Shirley Simmons as she slowly settled into a threadbare living room chair, gazed out the streaked picture window at a yard covered with last autumn’s leaves, and struggled to hold back tears.
Most people have never heard of Shirley Simmons, which is frustrating because of all she’s done for Boston over many, many years. The owners of the new minimansions sprouting around her faded single-story ranch in Milton probably have no idea who she is.
So here goes. She raised a son, Darryl Williams, in Roxbury in the 1970s when the right choices weren’t always easy to make. Darryl stayed out of trouble, did well in school, played sports, and mastered the guitar, always with an eye toward a better life.
“Darryl and my daughter [Karmel] said the kids would always tease them,’’ Shirley recalled, smiling in a bittersweet way at the memory. “ ‘Your mom’s calling you,’ they’d say. ‘It’s dark out. Time to go home.’ ’’
Darryl was a sophomore receiver for Jamaica Plain High when his football team ventured into Charlestown one Friday afternoon in September 1979, back when parts of Boston still smoldered over court-ordered busing. He had made his first varsity catch, and his team was up 6-0 when they gathered in an end zone for the halftime break.
Then a shot rang out. Darryl collapsed in what he later described to Dan Shaughnessy as “a long blink.’’ The bullet, fired from a nearby project rooftop, slipped between Williams’s pads and helmet, into his neck, and left him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.
Three white teenagers were arrested, two of whom were convicted. The city was ready to combust when Shirley Simmons, eyes red from so many tears, pleaded with other black congregants in her Roxbury church that Sunday morning to unite not in protest, but in prayer.
Then she left her job and devoted the next three decades to caring for Darryl, day and night, every week, every year. Darryl, himself an inspirational, eloquent young man, pushed for healing over hatred, telling people it wasn’t white people who shot him, but three white people. Mother and son were the picture of grace, and the city stayed calm.
Which leads back to Shirley Simmons’ Milton ranch, the one she lived in with Darryl for most of those years. Darryl died two years ago next week, at age 46. Now the wolves are at the door. StonehamBank sent a letter saying it would refer the mortgage for “commencement of foreclosure action’’ by yesterday because she is three months behind.
I started to ask Shirley about her finances when I realized that I just don’t care. I don’t care how little money she has, or where it goes. What I care about is that all those years ago, so many politicians promised to help in whatever way they could, and none of them ever really did. The city never offered a settlement. The Legislature never acted on a bill to provide lifelong care. Everyone went on with their lives, while Shirley and Darryl were expected to quietly deal with what was left of theirs.
Simmons, an older woman now, looked at the floor when asked if she has a plan. “I will become a homeless person,’’ she said.
A pleasant-sounding executive at StonehamBank named Shane Bellavance called me back Tuesday to say he couldn’t talk about the case. Truth is, this isn’t his bank’s fault. It’s everyone else that let Shirley Simmons down.
Still, I asked Bellavance if he knew who Shirley was. “I can’t comment,’’ he said.
I’m not asking for a comment. I’m asking if you know. “I don’t,’’ he replied.
And that’s the problem. Nobody does anymore. The question is, if they learn, will they care?
The Darryl Williams Fund
There’s a fund for Shirley administered by Richard Lapchick, the founder and former director of the Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sport in Society. He became very close with Darryl over the years, and has since moved on to the University of Central Florida.
The mailing address is:
The Darryl Williams Fund
The National Consortium for Academics and Sport University of Central Florida, College of Business Administration
4000 Central Florida Blvd.
Orlando, FL 32816
Please make checks payable to The National Consortium for Academics and Sport, and write The Darryl Williams Fund in the memo space. Shirley will get 100 percent of any donation for her mortgage.