One Bright Note
There's a little game people in the Lowcountry like to play. They may not be aware it's a competition, but who hasn't engaged in an innocent encounter of one-upmanship?
"How long have you lived here?" the conversation benignly begins. "Fifteen years," the person answers. "We've been here since 1978, when there was only a two-lane swing bridge and we had to go to Savannah for almost everything," counters the first person, implying the 15-year-resident is no competition.
Not so fast Mr. (or Ms.) Bragging Rights. Vera Simmons can top everyone. That's everyone who isn't a fifth-generation resident of Beaufort County. "When I was coming up we had dirt roads," said Vera, whose ancestors worked as farmers and shrimpers on Lady's Island. "They only had the main road paved and everything else was dirt, and then they started paving over the years."
And it was those dirt roads that took Vera from her home on Lady's Island to her sanctuary-the Ebenezer Baptist Church on St. Helena's Island. Although the demographics have changed dramatically on the picturesque islands near Beaufort, Vera continues to remain grounded in the only place she's ever called "home," where she plays an important role in her church community.
For the past six years, Vera has been the choir director at Ebenezer Baptist. She also heads the youth choir and combined choir and teaches Sunday school and Bible study. When Vera became a bus driver for the Bluffton schools in 2005, it wasn't long before she began directing the bus drivers' gospel choir, which performs at various churches.
Vera's connection to gospel singing began has a young girl, when Sunday mornings meant going to church, and Sunday afternoons were spent singing in the old prayer house, a separate building on Lady's Island that is no longer standing.
"That's how I learned to sing," said Vera, whose likeable personality comes out instantly. "Everybody in the neighborhood comes around, and you'd get together and do some hymns, songs, and prayers." As an eighth grader, Vera was asked to join the junior choir when a pastor heard her and her cousins doing impromptu singing in the upstairs balcony at the church.
After graduating from Beaufort High School in 1980, she set her goals on becoming a state trooper, but illness to her mother made her rethink her plans. Instead, she worked at the old Piggly Wiggly on Hilton Head Island (now vacated by Staples near Sea Pines Plantation), and soon married a man she met in Beaufort.
The couple had three children and divorced in 1992 after many years of being separated. Vera said the time of unsettledness and raising her two daughters and son as a single parent was what led her to becoming more devoted to God. "I took my marriage seriously, and it tore me apart when I separated because I never thought that would have happened," Vera said.
Vera's days begin before dawn, leaving her house for the 37-mile drive to work at 4:20 a.m. She returns home around 5:30 in the afternoon, often just enough time to eat dinner and head to choir practice. She continues to sing in the adult, senior, and combined choirs, which are scheduled monthly for specific Sundays at the church.
Vera, an alto who can sing tenor and soprano, has never had professional training. And although she's been approached, she has never been recorded commercially. "This is just a gift from God," she said. "I listen to the music, I get the beat, and then I do it my by myself without the music so that when I go to rehearsal I have it in my head."
Children: Felicia Simmons, 29, (Lousville, Ky); Charles Simmons 27, (Yemassee); and Shacoya Simmons, 25, (Lady's Island);
Other family: Six grandchildren (ages 15 to 8-months-old). Mother Ida Mae Blake lives next door. Father George Rhodan lives in Ladson, S.C.
Favorite music: "I mostly listen to old-time gospel, like Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, the Mighty Clouds of Joys, Tommy Ellison. I like some of the new ones too, like Marvin Sapp, Yolanda Adams, John P. Kee.
Why do people sing in the shower? "You can actually hear yourself echoing with the water running. When I do it, I do it to hear different tones in my voice for a song.