Luke Simmons was “straight outta Hernando.”
He was the community’s unofficial mayor, its hub, its heart and soul and guiding light.
But Melvin “Luke” Simmons Jr., who died Oct. 8, 2019, at age 47, was so much more.
“He could talk to anybody about anything; he could find a way to connect,” said lifelong-friend John Messer. “He was larger than life. My memories of him — in high school, in the hallways. He was always in the middle of something, his arm around someone, laughing, always laughing.”
Luke was a human magnet. People were drawn to him by his compassion and sense of justice and fairness.
“We met in third grade at Hernando Elementary School, Mr. Manos’ P.E. class,” recalled Todd Mys. “I was born with cerebral palsy and when kids made fun of me, Luke always had my back.”
In high school, Luke, a talented basketball player, encouraged Mys to be a part of Citrus High School’s basketball team as a manager.
“In our sophomore year, Luke didn’t like the way some of the players were making fun of me," Mys said, "and he went into the coach’s office and said, ‘They’re making fun of Todd and I don’t think we should have people on our team making fun of managers, because they work just as hard as we do.’
“Luke stood up for me … he made sure I was one of them, part of the team. He had control of the locker room.”
Born at Citrus Memorial Hospital to Lynda and Melvin Simmons, Luke grew up a part of the large and loving Alexander and Simmons clans.
He was especially close to his grandmother, Freddie Lee Simmons, who taught him how to cook — Luke was a well-known “barbecue master.”
“She taught him life things,” Lynda Simmons said. “She was always trying to get him married.”
Although Luke never married, he had Elonza Hendred, his best friend and the mother of their 23-year-old twins, Desmond and Treleasha.
They met when Luke went to William Penn University in Iowa on a basketball scholarship, where he graduated with a degree in Sports Administration.
Luke brought Elonza and the twins back to Hernando in 1997.
He also had another son, Jaylin Truss.
“When I came here, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay,” Elonza said. “He was working at Cypress Creek (Juvenile Offender Correctional Center) and he said, ‘Come do this.’ I told him, ‘I can’t work with bad kids,’ and he said, ‘Sure you can.’
“So, I go to interview and Luke is cutting the hair of the person I’m interviewing with. I didn’t really want to do it, but here it is 20 years later and I run the facility (as administrator), and it was all on Luke’s recommendation.”
Luke’s career centered around helping kids and their families, from teaching at CREST school to helping parents regain their parental rights as a counselor for the Department of Children and Families.
He has also worked for The Centers.
For the past four or so years, Luke worked as a prevention specialist with Eckerd Corporation, working mainly with middle school children.
He was also an assistant basketball coach at Citrus High School, not just because he was a former CHS basketball star in his day, not because he loved the game, but because he loved kids and knew that basketball was a means to mentoring them.
“Luke went above and beyond,” Mys said. “He coached kids in the summertime and in the off season at the park in Hernando ... he had a way with kids — they respected him.”
As a basketball player, No. 15, Luke helped the 'Canes “end a (nearly) 29-year drought,” Mys said. “From 1961 to 1989, we didn’t even know what a district title was ... he put Citrus High basketball back on the map.”
Most of all, Luke Simmons was a big guy with a big heart.
If you were his friend, he would call you everything but your real name.
“He called me ‘Dumblet,’” said his niece, Alexia Torres.
If Luke called you dumb or idiot, you knew you were special.
“I learned from him to treat everyone the same, give everyone respect, no matter what,” Alexia said. “He lived by that.”
“He was my best friend,” said his daughter, Treleasha. “He made sure I was in the kitchen with him, learning the barbecue sauce recipe … he taught me to fish, and to play basketball. I was the only one he’d let cut his hair.”
“We both had the same sense of humor -- we were both idiots,” said his son, Desmond. “He’d message me in the middle of the night and I’d be, ‘Man, I’m sleeping,’ but then he’d get me laughing … He taught me everything I know — fishing and barbecue and playing basketball. I used to get in trouble in school and he helped me out a lot. He was my partner.”
In 2011, Luke organized the first, now-annual, “There’s no place like Hernando,” community Thanksgiving dinner.
He invited all of Citrus County to come.
“After that, it was every holiday — when there needed to be a party, he was in charge of it,” said Luke’s uncle, Doug Alexander. “When he started something, he never did anything small. He threw big parties, invited everyone, and always had barbecue.”
Luke was sought after for his barbecue — chicken and ribs — and whenever he sold it, he always sold out. And if you couldn’t afford his prices, he’d let you eat anyway.
It was never about the money, but always about the people.
“Luke had a special connection with people, especially with outcasts and castoffs,” Alexander said.
Last year, Oct. 29, Luke’s heart stopped beating while he was at CREST school in Lecanto. Joseph Gentile, the school resource officer at Lecanto Middle School, performed CPR on him and Luke spent the next few days on life support in the ICU at Citrus Memorial Hospital.
“God gave him back to us for almost another year,” his mother, Lynda, said.
After he died, many people left messages on his Facebook page.
“Sir Luke — he was such a big part of all of us,” wrote Lena Webb. “To me, he embodied what it meant to grow up in a small town and what it meant to love your neighbor. To know him meant you knew someone truly cared. He left behind so many happy memories and touched so many lives, inspiring everyone to love and support one another.
“His death is a huge loss to all that knew him and the community we grew up in. I don't know anyone that doesn't smile when they hear his name. What a tremendous legacy to leave behind.”