Airport terminal renamed for longtime workers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 14, 2004

NATCHEZ &045; Sitting on his back porch, Billy Simmons can watch the planes takeoff from the Natchez-Adams County Airport. But not so long ago, Simmons was either flying the planes or he was in charge of them.

Both the airport and the skies were home to Simmons for more than 40 years, and it all began when Naval recruiting officers visited his high school and told them about testing for the Navy in New Orleans.

&uot;The school gave us a three-day excused absence and I couldn’t refuse,&uot; Simmons said.

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By 19, Simmons was learning to fly and was in active duty in World War II, even though he was &uot;fortunate enough to not have to be in any combat.&uot;

After the war, Simmons bought into a flying school, where he taught many local people to fly. In 1949, the city decided it wanted to use one airport for flights in and out of Natchez. Simmons applied for the airport manager job and didn’t leave the position for 40 years.

&uot;He was the only airport manager this airport had until he retired,&uot; said Clinton Pomeroy, now the airport manager since Simmons’ retirement in 1989. &uot;They (Billy and his wife, Helen) were instrumental in getting the building built, putting it in operation and seeing it used as a terminal to the present day.&uot;

The airport started as what Simmons called a &uot;war surplus&uot; airport, and he oversaw expanding runways, building the terminal and adding runway lights and a beacon light.

&uot;I saw it become a modern air terminal,&uot; Simmons said. &uot;It was just a matter of working at it. It was a diamond in the rough is what it was.&uot;

His wife Helen was just as involved, serving voluntarily as the administrative assistant, writing grants for 15 years before the airport had the money in 1964 to pay her to do the job.

&uot;The airport was the center of our lives,&uot; Simmons said. &uot;I was the one in the forefront, and she did all the work.&uot;

Saturday, the Simmonses were honored for all their work and dedication to the Natchez-Adams County Airport as the terminal building was renamed the Simmons Terminal Building, with a marble plaque on the wall.

&uot;I’m greatly humbled to have my name associated with this,&uot; Simmons said.

But others in the community were not surprised with the honor or recognition, saying there were no better people the terminal should be named for.

&uot;They were a team,&uot; Pomeroy said. &uot;She supported him and he supported her. Their family grew up out here. He spent his life and career out here. Mrs. Simmons has been right here by his side the whole time basically.&uot;

All three of Simmons’ sons came in town for the dedication &045; Wayne, Glenn and Don. But unfortunately, Helen did not live to see the dedication. She died last February.

&uot;It means a lot to me to have them here,&uot; Simmons said. &uot;To do that for me and their mom.&uot;

Adams County Supervisor Lynwood Easterling asked Pomeroy about naming the building after the Simmons.

&uot;I know what all he has done for the airport and that building,&uot; Easterling said. &uot;And his wife was just super.&uot;

Pomeroy did not hesitate to take Easterling’s idea and run with it. &uot;We hadn’t done anything, but it was only a matter of time,&uot; Pomeroy said.

Pomeroy knows the impact the Simmonses had on the airport. Now in his 28th year there, Pomeroy came to the airport straight out of college and never left. &uot;He took me under his wing,&uot; Pomeroy said. &uot;They’ve been like family.&uot;

But, Pomeroy said, the entire airport was like family, and that was true in more than one regard.

Along with the Simmonses, there was a second family name, Minor, at the airport. Many members of that family work there. And James Minor, who has worked at the airport for 33 years, said no one is as deserving of the honor bestowed on the Simmonses.

&uot;You couldn’t have better people to work under,&uot; Minor said. &uot;I think it’s a wonderful idea (to name the terminal building after the

Simmonses). They were really dedicated to the airport. They couldn’t do a better thing than name it because … they spent many hours here.&uot;

And Simmons still does, walking down from his house on many occasions just to see what is going on, catching glimpses he cannot get from his backyard.

&uot;Just like an old seaman returning to the sea,&uot; Simmons said.

From being an examiner to teaching lessons to many Natchezians, to flying commercial planes, to being the fire patrol pilot for Johns Manville to managing the airport, Simmons stayed quite busy. He taught hundreds of local people to fly, including his wife and his three sons, one of whom, Wayne, is a retired Navy pilot.

Simmons also was active in the Naval Reserve for 11 years and served as past president of both the Southeastern Airport Managers Association and the Mississippi Airport Association.

And everywhere he went, Simmons said he was an ambassador for Natchez.

Cappie Stahlman knew Simmons first as his parents’ friend and then as his. Now serving on the airport commission, Stahlman can see all Simmons did for the airport.

&uot;He always defended that airport and helped find federal programs to keep it open,&uot; Stahlman said. &uot;It hasn’t cost the Natchez taxpayers much. You will not find a town Natchez’s size with an airport like ours.

And that is due to Billy Simmons.&uot;