Simon’s Simple Suggestions
Late Senator’s Book a ‘How-to’ for Life
The last suggestion former Sen. Paul Simon makes in his new book, “Fifty-Two Simple Ways to Make a Difference,” is “Don’t let age be a barrier to doing good things, to dreaming.”
It’s a fitting way for Simon to end his 22nd and last book, especially considering that the late Democratic Senator from Illinois finished this plain-spoken and subtly inspiring work just weeks before he died last December at age 75.
Simon’s book, released this month by Augsburg Fortress publishing, reads like a step-by-step manual for making the world a better place. He encourages, sets out goals, recommends groups to get involved in and asks his readers to reach out to others, one act of kindness at a time.
“This is a ‘how-to’ book,” writes former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) in the book’s forward, “not how to play golf or how to build a cabinet, but how to be a good person. It is written from experience by someone who is just that.”
Written in his simple Midwestern style, Simon’s suggestions range from encouraging people not to agonize over decisions already made, to fighting the stereotypes that lie at the root of some the most pressing international issues facing the world today.
In his chapter titled “Invite Two International Students to Your Home For Dinner,” Simon writes, “The tragedy of September 11th happened in part because of our insensitivity to the people and problems of other countries. That insensitivity often comes across to people of other nations as arrogance. With a simple invitation to your home, you can do something to help change that image.”
One can almost picture the bow-tie-wearing Senator punching out these life lessons on his old manual typewriter — piecing together the manuscript from notes he had jotted down and often kept in his front shirt pocket.
In the end, Simon, who lived a lifetime of service, explains that “you get what you give” and that working for others is the best way find fulfillment in one’s own life.
In every chapter, Simon gives concrete suggestions, almost like homework assignments, which attempt to move people beyond just thinking about making a difference to acting.
“First, learn the first and last names of your immediate neighbors and go out of your way to greet them by name the next time you see them,” Simon writes in his chapter on making people feel more wanted. “Second, for one week, at least three times a day say hello and make conversation with a person you might not ordinarily greet … find something friendly to say to a stranger or an acquaintance. Use your imagination, and then apply it three times a day for one week.
“I doubt that you’ll stop after one week.”
“I like to joke and say Paul was very good at finding assignments, and he left me plenty,” said the late Senator’s wife, Patti Simon.
“It’s a very simple message, but it’s so heart-warming. I’m in the process of reading it again and you can just hear Paul’s voice coming through in that simple, soft-spoken way that he talked to people that encouraged them and built their confidence.”
She said that with American soldiers making a difference every day overseas, her husband wanted to give direction to people “who may look at them and ask, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’”
Patti Simon said when her husband was writing his book, he had some trouble selecting just 52 ways to make a difference. She said he wanted to highlight some specific organizations he thought were worth mentioning, such as the Big Brother, Big Sister program, and at the same time point out how the actions of specific individuals had inspired him in his own lifetime.
Simon finds his examples in dozens of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things — people like Robert Reid and Samuel Hightower. Reid is a 67-year-old man with cerebral palsy who, every morning, raises and lowers the flags at Southern Illinois University and makes sure the university clock keeps the correct time. Hightower is a painting contractor in Boston who has invested all of his savings and spare time in helping poor children in his neighborhood study music.
“I think Paul was grateful for the people who came forward and gave him ideas … legislators don’t come in with all of the ideas, they get them from people who come to them,” Patti Simon said. “If you want to make a difference, then come forward as an individual or come forward as a group.
“He knew you couldn’t get people excited about making a difference without giving them some direction,” she said. “This book is him saying, ‘Here are some ideas.’”