The town of Berwick-upon-Tweed lost a colossus of a man with the passing of John Simmons this month.
Diagnosed with cancer only in October, days after collecting his latest trophies at the Berwick Cricket Club Dinner, his death in the Wansbeck Palliative Care Unit just weeks before his 55th birthday brought incredible shock and sadness to many in the English town and communities across Scotland.
John was a man for whom the term “gentle giant” could have been invented, a quiet, reluctant character but one who, at 6ft 6in tall, was not easily missed in a room. Around 400 people packed into Berwick Parish Church this week to say their goodbyes and Berwick Rugby Club was full to the rafters afterwards in tribute to the friendship and respect he forged.
Born in Berwick in 1963, to parents George and Betty, and joining older brother Brian, John would go on to become a popular figure on the sporting fields of Northumberland and the Borders. He came through Tweedmouth West and Berwick Grammar, later Berwick County High School, and while cricket was his first love he would also shine at football early on and then rugby.
Tributes paid by his best man and friend Nigel Dudgeon and work colleague Stuart Birkett, both termed him, in different contexts, “a safe pair of hands”. It was the perfect summation.
Nigel spoke warmly of “Bunter’s” sporting abilities, notably in 40 years of cricket where he captained Berwick 1st XI for several years and represented the South of Scotland on many occasions. He was a left-arm swing bowler, a fine fielder who reached amazing catches despite, or because of his size, and a batsman who could bat anywhere in the order, and either put the shutters up or smack fours and sixes depending on what was required.
He was an equally talented rugby player, starting out as an imposing teenage full-back but switching to the back row and then second row as he got older. He played for Berwick Colts and Northumberland Colts as a youngster, Newcastle University 1st XV as a student and, once back in Berwick, went on to play on both sides of the border for the South of Scotland District and Northumberland.
Approaches were made to entice him to Kelso when the Poynder Park club was at its zenith, winning back-to-back Scottish Division One Championships, but he declined, insisting that it was due to work commitments, but most believing he was just from that older brigade of one-club loyalty.
He was passionate about rugby, fiercely English, and at times unnecessarily cheeky, in his support, but with a strong loyalty to Borders rugby – a combination that only ever works in Berwick. In truth, he was a good enough player that had he moved to Kelso astute observers believe that he would have joined the likes of John Jeffrey, Gary Callander and Alan Tait in the Scotland squad, so good were his all-round skills.
He did realise a dream of playing on the famous Murrayfield turf once in a BT Shield Final match for Berwick, losing narrowly 17-11 to Selkirk, in 1998, and took huge delight in seeing the club return in 2004, and this time win it. But work came first for John – had the game been professional then it may have been a very different story.
He graduated from Newcastle University with a First Class Honours in Geography, but would find a role back in his home-town with the Tweeddale Press Group. He started in 1985 and moved swiftly through a few promotions to become manager of the accounts department, and then company secretary, a director at just 30.
He would become a strong, reliable presence at the heart of a major media business during one of the most challenging periods in newspaper history, often seen burning the midnight oil to keep the finances in check, as the Tweeddale Press was bought by Johnston Press and went through several, significant transformations. He was asked to lead the financial operation in Scotland from The Scotsman office in Edinburgh, but remained in Berwick and commuted each day.
He was director of seven different media companies at one stage, and served on the board of the Berwick Preservation Trust for 22 years, helping to guide iconic projects such as the Dewar’s Lane Granary, Quayside Lookout and the Lowry Trail. Latterly, he moved closer to home by joining the Scottish Borders Housing Association, as finance co-ordinator.
John had married Tweeddale Press colleague Karen soon after taking over as director, and they had two children, Daniel and Beth, and though that marriage ended he was to find love again, with Claire, and that produced another gift in the shape of Niamh, blessing him with three children who variously drove him around the bend and made him beam widely with pride. Whether he told them often or not, he told those of us who worked with him of how much they made his life complete.
My own first meeting with John sums up the kind of person he was. I had been appointed to my first junior reporter’s position with the Tweeddale Press Group in 1990 and moved into a flat in Berwick. John sought me out early on and said if there was anything I needed to let him know.
One day the twin-tub my gran had given me conked out, leaving a pile of wet washing. I mentioned it as I passed him on the way into work, and he called me in. He told me to go and look at machines in the electrical shop across the road and let him know how much they cost.
I did and returned, and after a short wait in his office he returned with a cheque, told me to go and buy it and that he would take it off my wages at £10 per week. It was a small gesture perhaps, and we never did share that with the Chairman Colonel Smail, but it was a very kind one that helped to give me a confidence about starting out in life in my first job, and my first flat. It’s the kind of thing you don’t forget.
John is the kind of man you don’t forget, for the right reasons. He married his long-time partner Claire in a ceremony at Wansbeck on Saturday 6 January, a final act of love in a life cut tragically short, but which meant everything to him. He is survived by his parents George and Betty, brother Brian, wife Claire, and children in Daniel, Beth and Niamh who are a shining tribute to him, in looks and deed.