Union area resident Colleen Simons has her hands in a lot of activities, but one thing she enjoys more than others, is when she has her hands in the dirt.
Simons has been growing dahlias for 20 years. She shows the flowers, and was the first female president of the Greater St. Dahlia Society.
“It is a man’s organization and a man’s flower,” she said. “They had never had a woman at the head of the table.”
Simons also was the first female president of the Union Saddle Club and has been involved in many other clubs, organizations and activities.
She is a lifelong Union area resident and lives on her family’s century farm north of Union.
Simons, whose maiden name is Berghorn, has always had a love of horses and owned horses. As a teen her ability to ride horses landed her a job at Camp Zoe, a summer camp for children.
The camp, in Shannon County, is at the current site of Echo Bluff State Park. Simons was a camp counselor who taught horseback riding in the early ’60s when it was a “rather elite” camp.
“I was a country girl but the well-to-do kids were impressed that I had my own horse,” she said.
Many of the counselors were juniors and seniors in high school, but Simons, who was younger, was allowed to be a counselor.
“I was in the 4-H horsemanship and the saddle club,” she said. “That is how I ended up a year or two younger than most counselors.”
She taught younger children to ride horses in the summers of 1963-64.
Simons said there was no phone at the camp, so campers wrote letters to their parents.
“Time just went still,” she remembers. “We went by the clock, not by the calendar.”
During the days, Simons led tours of the campgrounds on horseback.
“Each child was entitled to a horseback ride each day,” she explained. “There were short rides and long rides.
“If they were beginners, they had to start with how to mount a horse.”
She remembers times that a horse would get tired and lay down in the creek, and sometimes the horses would just try to roll around in the water.
“I think we had a few (campers) with wet feet,” Simons laughed.
She said there was one particularly dangerous incident when a horse with a rider ran off from the group and ran into a yellow jacket nest.
“They had a reaction to the stings,” Simons said.
Simons graduated from Union High School in 1963. She then went to Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, where she earned a degree in education.
Simons taught social studies at Ritenour Junior High School, St. Louis, from 1967 to 1971.
In 1968, she married Fletcher Simons, of Krakow, and the couple built their home at the family farm.
After 1971, Simons became a stay-at-home mom for her children Christy and Andy, working parttime as a substitute teacher for the Union and Washington school districts.
“As a substitute I did a bit of everything,” she said, “and I could take the kids to school, and then pick them up and be back home.”
In 1988, she began work as a reporter for The Missourian under the editor Rick Dunaway.
“I would often go to the ambulance department, attended some meetings, and I was constantly taking photos,” Simons said.
According to Simons, there are fewer people growing dahlias now, which is likely due to the work involved in growing the flowers.
Each spring dahlias are planted and then bulbs are dug up in the fall.
“I plant 100 each year, along with my vegetable garden,” she said.
Her garden is about 30 feet by 60 feet. One-third of that is allotted for dahlias.
Simons has been growing dahlias for more than 20 years after a friend got her involved.
“It is a great flower to take to someone in a nursing home.”
Simons has won many awards through the Greater St. Louis Dahlia Society and the Missouri Botanical Garden.
She has been a member of the Union Saddle Club for many years, and Simons also is a member of the Franklin County Master Gardeners.
Simons has volunteered with Exceptional Equestrians of the Missouri Valley and she is a member of the Fourth Tuesday Book Club.
She also stays active in the City Slickers Club, as well as the Red Rose Line Dancers.
The dancers meet every Wednesday morning and visit facilities and nursing homes.
“They really enjoy having us come,” she said. “It also is really good exercise and it is good for the brain — you have to think or you will miss a step.”
Simons is a lifelong member of Zion United Church of Christ, Union, where she is part of the church outreach program visiting shut-ins.
Members of the program then update the church pastor on the people they visit.
“Most people really appreciate us visiting them,” Simons said.
Simons delivers meals on wheels weekly from the County Seat Senior Center, she is a 4-H leader and a horticulture volunteer for the Master Gardeners.
Simons and her husband have traveled to all 50 states and most of the Canadian provinces.
The couple also has driven through Europe, and did a narrow boat journey in England and Wales.
They also have done a driving tour of New Zealand.
In 2015, the Simonses went on a rail trip from Chicago to the West Coast, and then back again.
This past September, the couple, along with 10 friends and family members, went to China for 19 days.
“That was on my husband’s bucket list,” Simon said.
“It was a grueling trip,” she added. “On some days we walked more than five miles uphill and up steps.”
The group walked the Great Wall of China during the stay.
“That is something you read about your whole life,” she said.
One of the most fascinating parts of the trip, Simons said, was seeing the life-size terracotta army of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi HuangDi. But her favorite part of the trip was seeing panda bears.
“They put on quite a show,” she said.
During the trip Simons sampled Chinese cuisine and explored the infrastructure of the country.
“There are so many bridges, and they are so beautifully lit,” she said.
Simons also has taken a mother and daughter trip to Hong Kong, and several “girls trips” to Ireland, Egypt, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
She has a trip to Cuba planned for March 2017 with her sister, Sandy.
But Simons will always cherish a trip to Thailand 20 years ago.
“My trip of a lifetime was in 1996 as part of a women’s leadership exchange trip to Thailand through the University of Missouri Extension,” she said.
Although she is active in many organizations and has seen the world, Simons enjoys her time at home the best.
“My biggest joy is spending time with my grandchildren and golden retriever,” Simons said.