It’s not often a person gets compared to a tortoise, but in this case it’s a compliment. At the Alexandria Zoo, there are two major icons who have been around for decades. They are both crowd pleasers and many generations of zoo visitors have a story or two to tell about them.
One of the icons is, of course, “Big Al” the Aldabra Tortoise and the other is George Simmons, the zoo’s train conductor.
Life at the zoo will change a bit at the end of this month, because Simmons is hanging up his conductor’s hat after 27 years riding the rails.
“George is a lot like Big Al — we always expect to see him when we visit the zoo,” said Alexandria Mayor Jeffrey Hall. “It’s going to seem strange, but he deserves to enjoy retirement. He has been the kind of worker every one hopes for and has been a staunch supporter of our zoo.”
On Saturday, Nov. 23, The Alexandria Zoo celebrated George Simmons Day with cake, a proclamation from the mayor and many well-wishers who will miss Simmons.
One avid fan, 3-year-old Jack O’Quin, son of Natalie and Patrick O’Quin, came to the party in his own conductor’s uniform sure he was a shoe-in to take over for “the train man.”
“We come to the zoo once or twice a week,” said Natalie. “And the first thing we have to do is ride the train with the “train man.” Natalie said when Jack’s Pre-K teacher asked him last week what he was thankful for he told her, “the train man.”
Simmons began his job at the zoo in July 1992.
“Warren (Pete) Hare, the owner of Hare’s Hobby Shop on Lee Street, told me that Leslie Whitt, the director of the Alexandria Zoo, was looking for someone to operate the train and he recommended me,” Simmons said. Following an interview with Whitt, Simmons started training and became the engineer that week.
Now, almost three decades later, Simmons has given countless rides to many generations of zoogoers. And helped make the train ride the highlight of a zoo visit.
Besides being a train buff and hobbyist … trains are in his blood.
“I am the son and grandson of railroad conductors,” Simmons said. “I remember listening to my father talk about the railroad from a very young age. I enjoy watching, photographing and even videoing trains. Also, I have been an avid model railroader since I was in high school.”
Though we think of Simmons as the train conductor, there is much more to the train man than trains. Simmons graduated from Tulane University in 1975 with a degree in history.
He then spent the next nine years serving in the U.S. Navy, stationed everywhere from San Diego to Vancouver and Minnesota to Guam. During that time spent as an unrestricted line officer assigned to various surface ships, Simmons also received a Master’s in Business Administration in December 1984 from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN
He returned home to Dry Prong in 1985, then became the zoo’s train conductor and never looked back. He has one brother, Richard Simmons, who lives in Texas, but made the trip to Alexandria to celebrate with George.
When Simmons was asked what his retirement plan was he talked trains, of course.
“I hope to spend more time working on my model railroad and traveling to operate on model railroads.“ he said. “I also plan to become more involved in the functioning of my church.”
Simmons believes he has been very fortunate.
“I have had the opportunity to work under two great zoo directors, the late Leslie Whitt and Lee Ann Whitt. They made it a joy to come to work,” he said. “Also, I want to thank all the various Alexandria Zoo employees and FOTAZ volunteers I have had the good fortune to work with all these years for their support.
Simmons said it has been most satisfying over the years, “seeing the looks of excitement and joy on the young children as they ride the train around the zoo.”
“It seems like that train whistle will really feel a little bit lonesome for a while,” said Zoo Director Lee Ann Whitt. “George is one of the most loyal, dependable employees we’ve ever had at the Zoo.
“Myself, along with hundreds of people who expect to see him at the train depot when they visit, will surely miss him.”
Simmons will, however, work a bit part-time until a permanent replacement is found and he also plans to help out this year during Holiday Light Safari.
“I am grateful he is willing to continue working part-time until we get things worked out. George did so many jobs related to the train’s operation besides just being the engineer, it will be difficult to fill his shoes. We expect to have to hire several people to keep things running as smoothly as he did – basically by himself,“ Whitt said. “ I think he will keep the Bayou Le Zoo Choo Choo in his heart forever!”
Although the retirement celebration was Saturday, Simmons’ last official day is Nov. 30, so you’ll have one more week to take a ride with Conductor Simmons. Don’t be the one person who hasn’t ridden the train with George.