By Wayne Knuckles
LAKEMONT—Alexander “Sandy” Simon Jr. is a living testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome life’s obstacles.
A super-successful salesman, businessman and developer whose work included development of the Savannah Mall and a stint as business manager for Hollywood actor Burt Reynolds, Simon seemingly had the world on a string when, at age 56, he suffered a massive stroke that nearly cost him his life and led him to be declared 100 percent disabled.
“I lost 45 percent of my brain cells,” he said, sitting in the den of his Lakemont home overlooking the Tallulah River. With his trademark humor, he added with a grin, “you’re talking to a half-wit, so forgive me if I say something wrong.”
The year was 1993, and Simon was told he would never walk again, talk again, use his left side or even be able to make a decision again.
“I was going to be in a retirement home laying in bed for the rest of my life,” he recalled. “I’m here by the grace of God and what he gave me to be determined. I went into a coma for about three weeks, and I spent three months in intensive rehab. I’ve been doing therapy three days a week for 27 years. That’s my life, therapy.”
Instead of ending Simon’s productive career, the stroke eventually led Simon to perhaps even greater success.
He literally willed himself back to health, and reinvented himself as a successful author. Since his stroke, he’s written 13 books, including “A Stroke of Genius,” dedicated to stroke survivors.
“I didn’t write until I had my stroke,” Simon said.
He became a successful lecturer and community leader in his native Delray Beach, Florida, whose talks were so popular he was hired by Norwegian Cruise lines to be a guest lecturer on numerous topics on dozens of cruises in all parts of the world.
He’s also given countless inspirational talks to other stroke victims.
“I’ve spoken at stroke conferences from Boston to Wichita to Miami and all over,” Simon recalls. “When I speak to 500 people in the audience who have had strokes or are caregivers, they hear me, because I have been there.”
He’s become an accomplished artist whose paintings include a beautiful rendering of St. James Episcopal Church in Clayton.
A man of perpetual drive and infinite curiosity, Simon recalled the dark times immediately following his stroke.
“I was in deep, deep depression,” he said of the period when he was unable to walk, talk or feed himself. “I was suicidal. I said I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
What kept him going through the darkest of times?
“It was my upbringing to do your best forever, to call on God and have faith that exceeds your fear,” Simon said. “Never give up, that’s my best advice. You need support, you need therapy and you need determination. And never, ever, give up. You’re tempted to give up every day. Every day. It’s a natural thing. But you can’t.”
Simon grew up in Delray Beach. His grandfather had immigrated from the mountains of northern Lebanon in 1912. He has traced his family roots as far back as 1,000 B.C.
“Some of my relatives were contemporaries of Christ,” he said.
He worked summers for his father, a farmer and real estate owner. He later followed his brother Roy to Georgia Tech, where he studied architecture and civil engineering.
“My parents strongly stressed education,” Simon recalled. “They didn’t say what to do, they just said do your best. I have four brothers and we have eight degrees among us.”
His first job after college was as a salesman for Georgia Pacific, charged with opening up new territories in North Georgia.
That’s when he first discovered Rabun County. In fact, his Lakemont home is built on a piece of property he discovered on his very first trip here.
“I came to Clayton on Old 441,” Simon recalled. “This river was roaring. There was a little house sitting here, and there was a pullover in front of it, so I pulled over to rest. I said to myself, ‘I want to live right here.’ Years later, this house was for sale and I bought it.”
Feeling his future was in marketing, not architecture, Simon returned to college and graduated from the Wharton School of Business before taking a job in Atlanta in real estate sales and leasing.
His growing reputation led to him being selected to build the Savannah Mall.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, but I learned fast,” Simon said. “It was announced that we would open on April 16, 1969, and we opened on budget, on time and we had full occupancy.”
While in Savannah, Simon was named chairman of the Savannah Symphony Society, where he lured the legendary Duke Ellington to perform in 1970.
He has served in many civic and philanthropic organizations over the years across the county.
He was a member of the board of directors of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis and was named National Volunteer of the Year by the National Association of County Parks Executives.
Now in his 80’s, he’s embarked on yet another career as an investor in Clayton.
He owns a number of buildings in Clayton, and hopes to help see the town continue to thrive.
“Back in 2007-08, I could have gone anywhere, I just happened to love Rabun County,” Simon said. “I love everything about it … the trees, the water, the weather and the people particularly. My first stop was St. James Episcopalian Church. We found the most wonderful mantra there, ‘What More Can I Do To Help You?’ That’s the mantra of this area. I walk down Main Street and I’m embraced with friendship. I patronize local businesses. I said, ‘If I’m going to live here, I’m going to invest here and help it as much as I can. I don’t put myself on a pedestal. Because of my background, I knew the town would grow.”
More importantly, Simon said his goal is to help foster the right kind of growth.
“Not have big money come in, triple the rents, buy up all the properties and build apartments and condos like they did in Delray,” he said. “I hope to see Clayton being branded a village in the mountains. It gives a sense of ‘I’m Home.’ People like that feel, to come home to a village. And a village has a philosophy of ‘what’s good for me must be good for the village, and what’s good for the village must be good for me.’ Or we won’t survive. About 80 percent of the land surrounding us is federal forest, and it’s vulnerable to politics. Somebody down in Atlanta could come up with a bill that allows somebody to buy 10,000 acres in Rabun County and build a thousand houses. And there is gone the ambience, the culture, the image, the lifestyle of Rabun County. It could happen.”
Simon is proud to say that of the six buildings he owns in Clayton, “each brought something that wasn’t there.”
“I don’t go anywhere that I don’t put my money where my mouth is,” Simon said. “Clayton and Rabun County are blessed with a culture of lower middle class and upper middle class. Both can be very strong if they work with each other. I look at Reeves Hardware as a phenomenon. There’s a big 24/7 Walmart here, but Reeves is thriving. How many downtowns have failed when a big Walmart moves in? Not Clayton. Reeves has stayed ahead. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be successful. It takes an attitude. That’s what I’m telling young people.”
These days, Simon spends the winter months in Florida, but more and more he is thinking about living in Rabun County permanently with his constant companion, Christy Collins, “the love of my life,” at his side.
“I’m 82 years old,” he said. “I don’t want to spend my life in stress. I’m working with Ray Pagano to bring a community theater downtown. I’m not trying to be gaudy or change the face of Clayton at all. What I did was help bring a jeweler to town, a donut shop and a shop like Wander, which is fabulous. We need a brand called Clayton that attracts the right kind of people. It needs wise people to make those decisions and three I’s and a P … independence, integrity, intelligence and a passion for their town. I want to stay here as long as I live.”