The first time Mary Rose Cardenas crossed paths with Neal Simmons, in 1967, she was suspicious.
Simmons had come into her office at Gulf Mart — Brownsville’s first discount store, which Cardenas managed — to inform her that her employee Lourdes Lara would not be returning to work, since they were getting married.
Simmons, who’d met Lara in the checkout lane on a busy Christmas Eve, said his fiancée didn’t want to break the news to Cardenas, so he was doing it instead.
Cardenas, who’d spent 17 years working for a credit bureau, decided some snooping was in order.
“With my knowledge of credit reporting and investigation I called Gonzales, Texas, where he came from,” she said. “I called Crystal City, because he was also involved in politics. I called and got a lot of information.”
It turned out there was nothing to worry about. Simmons was OK. The couple wed and moved out of the Valley, but eventually found their way back to Brownsville in the early 1970s.
Simmons, who would make his name as a homebuilder via N.O. Simmons Associates Inc. and El Valle Homes, still laughed about Cardenas’ “investigation” years later. The two became fast friends.
“He always respected me and loved me and I loved him and his wife,” Cardenas said. “That’s the kind of relationship that we had.”
Simmons died May 1 at the age of 87. He’s survived by Lourdes Simmons, his wife of 47 years; daughter Lourdes Simmons Carrasco; son Scott Simmons and grandchildren, great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
Cardenas, who spoke at Simmons’ funeral on May 3, described her longtime friend as a “very generous person and also a tremendous businessman.”
Simmons, who built more than 10,000 homes in Brownsville, Laredo, El Paso, Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Houston during 60 years in the construction business, was a dedicated enthusiastic supporter of the community, she said.
He helped found the Brownsville Economic Development Council as a charter member and served on the boards and committees of a number of organizations, including the Coastal Banc and Mercantile Bank, the National Association of Home Builders, South Texas Homebuilders Association, and the Lower Valley Builders and Developers Association.
Although he never went beyond high school, Simmons was a big proponent of higher education, helping push through a bond issue for Texas Southmost College and serving on the UTB/TSC Development Board.
In 2002, Simmons and his wife set up the Neal and Lourdes Simmons Foundation to fund scholarships for students majoring in education.
UTB President Juliet V. Garcia, speaking at Simmons’ funeral, said he also lent his valuable expertise while serving on the university’s land acquisition committee. She said Simmons tended to downplay his own contributions while giving most of the credit to others.
Garcia described him as “a humble man who valued people, community and hard work.”
Simmons and his wife also donated the land for Rancho Verde Elementary School.
He was also a big supporter of scouting, and in 2005 was presented with the Timeless Values Leadership Award by the Rio Grande Council of the Boy Scouts. Cardenas said Simmons supported scouting to the degree that he did because of his experience as a Boy Scout.
“He wanted to support boys who were in the same circumstances that he was as a child,” she said.
Simmons, who credited scouting with imparting the moral principals that would guide him throughout his life, was born in 1926 in Gonzales and started working at age 14 to help his family.
He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1944, was stationed in the Pacific and discharged in 1946. Simmons skipped college, instead going to work as a carpenter and painter and steadily growing his home-building enterprise.
In 1953, just seven years after going into business, Simmons received the “America’s Best Builder Award” from the NAHB.
Cardenas said Simmons, at her request, joined the board of Valley Regional Hospital, which her husband, Renato, helped start. Simmons served as chairman of the board during a critical time that would lead to construction of a new hospital on Alton Gloor Boulevard, she said. He also served on the board of trustees for the First United Methodist Church.
Cardenas said Simmons never balked at supporting a worthwhile cause.
“He was a trouper,” she said. “I was always recommending him to people who needed money. He always gave.”