Austin Simmons ’90 routinely describes Grinnell as a winning lottery ticket. “It was pure luck that I ended up there,” he says. “Grinnell was everything I needed.”
Now a successful real estate developer with Brightwork Real Estate in Tampa, Fla., Simmons came to Grinnell with no idea of what he wanted to get out of the experience. “When I came to Grinnell, I didn’t have a plan,” says Simmons. “I wanted to play soccer and run around with my friends.” He may not have had a plan, but Simmons knew he needed what Grinnell offered — small classes and individual attention. Reflecting on the experience, particularly after having pursued a law degree at a large institution, Simmons realizes how crucial Grinnell was in his development.
Ultimately, it was John Pfitsch, then Grinnell’s soccer coach, who directed Simmons’ rambunctious energy into specific goals. Pfitsch had been Simmons’ first point of contact when he was looking at colleges. “I don’t know how many thousands of kids approached him in a state of disarray,” says Simmons, “but I was fortunate to catch him at a time when he was extremely wise and a calming influence.”
After graduating with a degree in political science, Simmons returned to campus regularly. “I came back for reunion every year for the first five or six years and slept on John Pfitsch’s floor,” he says. He attributes his strong bonds with other members of the alumni community to returning as often as he did. Most recently, Simmons returned for the College’s 171st Commencement to celebrate Emily Pfitsch, John’s widow, as she received an honorary doctorate.
Simmons has given gifts to Grinnell nearly every year since graduating but finally found himself in the position to give a major gift this year. “Athletics was very important to me,” says Simmons. “I felt like if I could be involved at Grinnell in a specific area, there would be no better place than the athletics department.” Sarah Johnson, assistant director of major gifts, worked with Simmons and Andy Hamilton ’85, director of athletics and recreation, to make sure Simmons’ priorities matched the College’s needs.
“My fantasy was to be a big part of the soccer program at Grinnell,” says Simmons. He considered stating outright where he wanted to direct his gift. “But then I thought about my own business. I have to trust my people’s input and collaborate with them,” he says. Instead, he asked Hamilton where the gift would be most useful. When Hamilton said the football program needed an assistant coach/recruiting coordinator, Simmons immediately agreed to fund the position. In March 2017, the College hired Matt Reed to fill the position. Reed spent the past three seasons at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., and will work with quarterbacks and running backs at Grinnell. He will also attend recruiting events throughout the United States, increasing Grinnell’s presence and strengthening what has been an area of the football program in need of improvement.
Simmons describes himself as a collaborator. Buying a piece of property, building a structure on it, and seeing it become a doctor’s office, a restaurant, or a store — and knowing that he was an important part of that process — gives him a unique sense of satisfaction. His gift to the football program gave him a similar feeling. “I’ll never have enough money to pay Grinnell back for all it gave me,” he says. “I just want to be part of Grinnell’s future.”