Simons Reception frame3-Ron Simons holds up license plate frame during a reception for his honorary doctorate at the Manor House at Cal Poly Pomona June 7, 2012.

Campus community bids farewell to campus icon ‘Mr. Cal Poly Pomona’

By Elizabeth Casillas, Sept. 28, 2021

After serving the university for more than five decades, Ron Simons, Rose Float mastermind and founder of Cal Poly Pomona’s Alumni Association, passed away Aug. 26. The university remembers him for his dedication to students, staff and alumni, and his legacy blooms with each Cal Poly Pomona rose.

Although not his parents’ first choice, Simons joined the university community in 1959 as an undergraduate student in the College of Agriculture. He became involved with Rose Float meetings immediately thanks to his freshman roommate who invited him to the first of many gatherings. Simons was almost “tossed out of school” just as fast.

In a video published by CPP, filmed right before Simons received an honorary doctorate on June 10, 2012, he discussed brewing hard cider in his dorm room.

“I’m up in my room, on that third corner up there, and the process is, you know, you just put the cap on lightly because it’s always effervescing all the time, so it’s got to release the gas,” said Simons. “So, one night I did do this. I had put the cap on and moved it down underneath my desk. I got back, I don’t know, it was maybe 2:30 a.m., 3 a.m. in the morning and I reached down to pick the jug up. It was in a glass gallon jug, and I reached down, and all I did was start to lift it, and the entire gallon jug blew up.”

The contents of the jug exploded, and Simons was left holding a ring of glass around his finger. The hard cider spilled out of his dorm room and left a trail across the hall and down the stairs. The pungent scent lingered for months after, and in much the same way, the impact he has had on students will remain long after he is gone.

Ron Simons holds up license plate frame during a reception for his honorary doctorate at the Manor House at Cal Poly Pomona June 7, 2012. (Courtesy of Tom Zasadzinski)

Generations of Rose Float students worked under the supervision of Simons. Graduates from the 1960s through the 2010s recall Simons being a staple in the Rose Float preparations, committee and overall journey. David Wong (’78, master’s in engineering technology) remembers Simons’ dedication to the float and his “can-do” attitude against any obstacle.

“When I first met Ron, he was dressed in white coveralls, and we were getting ready to move the float out to Pasadena. It was a rainy night, and the float had broken down right outside South Campus Drive,” said Wong. “He was right there. First thing, in his white coveralls, welding on the spokes to the wheels for the float, and that’s the first time I actually met him.”

Simons’ dedication to students did not stop at Rose Float activities. He would go above what was expected of him if the situation required him to. When Katie Rodriguez (’00, bachelor’s in biology) was leading the Rose Float committee during her last year, the float kept getting “red tagged,” deemed unacceptable in the competition, by a specific float mechanic.

The small committee worked hard to fix the errors, but each time the mechanic would go down to inspect the float he would still tag it. The mechanic would pull her aside to “talk as friends,” and he would leave with an uncomfortable hug. Pretty soon those talks crossed a line, and Rodriguez called Simons.

“Ron came down to the Rose Bowl for our float inspection. He saw what was going on instantly, even though I hadn’t mentioned anything about what was happening with this man. He immediately took the man in question aside and they had a very animated conversation,” stated Rodriguez. “Ron told me to never stand for that kind of treatment or behavior from anyone, that no woman ever should. He went on to say that he was ‘hopping mad’ and he wasn’t done. What transpired, I don’t know, but that man soon hung up his white outfit for good.”

Simons as man on the moon in the 1962 Rose Parade. (Courtesy of Tom Zasadzinski)

Cal Poly Pomona’s Rose Float would not be what it is today if not for Simons. Following his three years in the U.S. Army after receiving his first degree, Simons returned to CPP and found a Rose Float team with no committee, no design, no student interest and no budget. The dean of students at the time, Henry House, let him know he was the last hope to carry on the Rose Float tradition.

Juggling his classes as he pursued a second degree in agribusiness and food industry management, Simons was able to reassemble the Rose Float committee, and create a float, in just three months.

In 1968, Simons brought to life “The Mouse that Got Away.” This float went on to win the Princess Award for excellence in animation, and it set a standard for Cal Poly Pomona’s and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s trademark animation style.

This dedication to Cal Poly Pomona’s Rose Float was the driving reason behind the new lab’s name, The Don Miller and Ron Simons Rose Float lab. The lab was finished in July but Simons was unable to see it in-person. However, he was sent an edited picture of himself standing in front of the lab.

“My wife and I went up to Paso Robles to meet with him, and we always talked on the phone weekly, especially the last year when he was having issues,” said Wong. “The first thing he did, when we went to see him, is he presented a picture of the lab with him photoshopped into the picture. He was really proud of it, the first thing he showed us, he was so proud of that picture.”

In much the same way he was able to build an award-winning float out of nothing, Simons built Cal Poly Pomona’s Alumni Association out of nothing but an idea. Simons saw the connections students formed being part of the Rose Float team, and he knew these connections were being formed all over campus; he just needed a way to bring, and keep, everyone together.

The Alumni Association’s purpose was not just to keep alumni connected; it also served to pave a path to success for current students. Simons wanted to give back to students and he wanted them to make the most out of their time at the university.

Heather Hanson (’94, bachelor’s in marketing management) explained how the Alumni Association has worked on events to help students network and develop their connections with their peers. It has also provided students with meals to help those in need.

“It’s been rewarding to be able to give back and to see the progression of students. They’ve got all these fabulous skills, and they’ve made all these great friends, and it’s just personally rewarding to see that, to know that we as alumni are helping to push that all forward,” said Hanson.

While managing both Rose Float and Alumni Association duties, Simons never failed to form personal connections with those he came across. Daniel E. Montplaisir, vice president of University Advancement, recalls Simons being a “gregarious” man who made everyone feel included and needed.

Simons treated everyone, student, staff and faculty, equally and he served as a mentor to all those around him. Many of his “Ron Simon-isms,” tidbits of advice he passed on to others, live on through his mentees and friends he accumulated throughout his years.

“He’ll be missed. I wish we had some of Ron’s guidance with the ‘smart aleck’ kind of side of it. Something recorded for the students today to hear, you know, to hear a Ron Simon-ism. He was funny and dry, and his humor was amazing, but he always had this sense of commitment and passion toward the program,” said Michele Gendreau (’80, bachelor’s in restaurant management). “He always had your back, but he didn’t mince words when you were screwing up. He didn’t let you fail, but he made darn sure you weren’t going to make that mistake again. You can learn by doing you know, you can make a mistake, but you don’t have to make it twice.”

Memorial services have not been finalized at this time, however, a virtual memorial wall has been created in honor of “Mr. Cal Poly Pomona.”

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