John Oliver Simon, a poet and teacher based in Berkeley, died of cancer Jan. 16 at the age of 75 in the home of Susie Kepner, his fiancee.
Simon, a UC Berkeley graduate, worked as a teacher with California Poets in the Schools, a nonprofit that empowers students to pursue poetry. According to co-worker Tina Areja-Pasquinzo, he will be remembered for his passion for poetry and his tenacious personality.
“He loved poetry — that was his heart and soul,” Areja-Pasquinzo said. “He was soulful. That is what changed a lot of people’s lives.”
Simon was one of the organization’s best translators, and he even attended a conference for translators in Madrid after his diagnosis, according to Areja-Pasquinzo.
In addition to his skills as a professional, Areja-Pasquinzo emphasized Simon’s commitment as a teacher of poetry.
“He was passionate, tenacious and sometimes borderline audacious,” Areja-Pasquinzo said.
Simon’s stepdaughter, Lorelei Bosserman, said Simon also had a passion for nature. Bosserman said she went on many camping trips with her stepfather throughout her childhood.
Though Bosserman said Simon had many loves, poetry remained his passion. Bosserman spoke highly of Simon’s creativity as well. According to Bosserman, her mother and Simon met at UC Berkeley in the ’60s when he wrote her a three-page poem. Bosserman added that he even became skilled at watercolor painting by working with children’s kits.
Simon’s parents were both registered communists and he was an activist, according to Bosserman. He was part of the Free Speech Movement and was involved in the construction of People’s Park. Bosserman recalled having building materials in their house that her parents were using to help construct the park.
“I actually spent a lot of my childhood in People’s Park,” Bosserman added.
Of Simon and his fiancee, Susie Kepner, Bosserman said they were “madly in love” and that he died in her arms.
Simon, according to both Bosserman and Areja-Pasquinzo, had a strong influence on the people around him, including his daughters and students.
“I think I got most of my values from him, including his passion for justice,” Bosserman said.
Areja-Pasquinzo added that Simon impacted his students in a significant way, allowing them to become mature writers.
“Watching him work with students is magical,” Areja-Pasquinzo said.
Areja-Pasquinzo said that even days before he passed, Simon was still pushing for his program at California Poets in the Schools, continuing to go to class when he was ill because he cared for his students. According to Areja-Pasquinzo, Simon made a legacy through creating an environment that allowed his students to find their voice and their spirit.
“He wasn’t just a poet,” Bosserman said. “He made poets.”