In a basement with red shag carpet, stacks and stacks of 45 rpm records and a “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” movie poster, Ken Simon ought to be a happier guy.
But he’s sad and will be sadder still come Aug. 18.
That’s the first day of school at Raymore-Peculiar High School, where he spent every first day since 1968. He taught nearly half a century — history, mostly — and coached everything from football to golf. Spend that much time at one district and kids of kids start coming around, and their kids after that.
Simon loved every minute of it. Right up until April 24, when he was ordered off school property.
He had showed his class a film from the 1950s made to warn teenage boys about homosexuals. The black-and-white “Boys Beware” depicts gay men as predators who lure boys to motels by offering friendship, rides and ice cream.
Today the 10-minute “public service announcement” would be considered silly propaganda, much as “Reefer Madness” was to marijuana.
Simon says he showed “the stupid video” he found on YouTube to show his seniors how much times have changed and how society has changed in its understanding and acceptance of gays and lesbians.
But at least one student complained about the film.
And just like that, Simon was gone. Suspended just weeks short of the end of the school year, when he was set to retire anyway. Banned from school property, he never got that last day with students. That’s why on a cool morning in May he stood beside a road leading to the school and held a sign telling seniors goodbye.
It was before 7 a.m. They honked when they saw him there standing in the grass.
“That was my only way to say goodbye,” Simon, 70, said this past week in his Raymore home. “I gave my life to that school, and I could cry when I think this is how it ended.”
So the question is: Did Simon show the video for the educational reason he gave or is he an anti-gay bigot?
Linda Simon, his wife of 44 years, woefully smiled and shook her head at the question.
“Ken likes everyone — accepts everyone for who they are — that’s the way he is,” she said. “It hurts him that somebody might think otherwise because of all this.
“He loved those kids and he loved teaching with all his heart.”
Nearly 5,000 signatures appeared on a petition to lift Simon’s suspension. Students supported the cause with what looked like a pep rally. “RETURN SIMON PLEASE,” a raised sign pleaded from a crowded pickup.
Simon appealed his suspension to the Raymore-Peculiar school board. A representative of the state teachers union accompanied him to the closed-door hearing and laid out Simon’s case as to why he showed the video.
The district earlier released a statement saying Simon would be honored for his 47 years of service, but officials declined comment for this story.
At one point in the appeal hearing, according to Simon, the union rep told the board members that after all those years of teaching, Simon deserved a round of applause.
The union rep clapped, slowly, the only sound in an otherwise still room.
Simon grew up in Sedalia, Mo., but for reasons he’s not even sure of, he spent his entire teaching career in Cass County.
One year in Harrisonville, then 47 at Raymore-Peculiar. When he arrived in the fall of 1968, the rural school had about 150 students. Now it graduates almost four times that.
Simon taught mostly world history and driver’s education. And he loved coaching, even sports he didn’t know much about.
He hoped to make it 50 years.
But a couple of years back, he got the impression that district officials wanted him to retire. According to him, he was asked to provide lesson plans, something he hadn’t had to do for years.
The film, his wife thinks, was just an excuse to get rid of him.
Simon showed the film to a law enforcement class that dealt with topics such as racial profiling and the dangers of sex offenders. That’s when he found “Boys Beware” and showed it as example of how profiling was nothing new and how much attitudes have changed.
The film starts with a teenage boy being befriended by a stranger in sunglasses.
“What Jimmy didn’t know was that Ralph was sick,” the narrator says. “A sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious. A sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual, a person who demands an intimate relationship with members of their own sex.”
Later that day, Steven Miller, the principal, suspended Simon. According to Simon, Miller told him he would be back in a couple of days.
But time turned into weeks. Students then staged a rally and organized the petition. Comments came from graduates across a span of 40 years. Some said Simon made history interesting by telling stories.
“Most fantastic teacher I have ever met,” a 2011 graduate wrote. “Ray-Pec should be ashamed of themselves. Absolutely ridiculous.”
Another former student, now at Indiana University, wrote that “Boys Beware” was ideal to show how times have changed regarding LGBT issues.
“Administration you missed the mark on this one. Sad day.”
On May 7, the district released this statement: “Recent reports have generated a great deal of speculation regarding the employment status of Ken Simon in the Raymore-Peculiar School District.
“Due to privacy concerns, the District is very limited in what it can say about personnel matters. However, the District would like to address the items that can be shared with the general public.
“Simon has served the students of the Raymore-Peculiar School District for 47 years. He is employed by the Raymore-Peculiar School District and will retire at the end of the school year. The current matter will have no impact on his future retirement benefits.
“Simon will be honored this month in a similar fashion as all retirees of the District. He may attend the various end-of-year staff events and the 2015 Graduation Ceremony as a patron of the District.”
Simon didn’t attend graduation because he was not allowed to sit with teachers. The district did not renew his contract, which has since expired.
A sad ending, said Bruce Young, longtime football coach at Ray-Pec. Simon coached the district’s younger players for nearly 20 years.
“He thought this video would be a good lesson about changing times,” Young, now the running backs coach at Baker University, said Friday. “I’ll say this: He loves kids and doesn’t have a mean spirit in his body. As many years as he was at that school — they ought to name a hallway after him.”
Jim Franklin, a friend of Simon’s since childhood, said the two share an interest in anything 1950s. That explains those stacks of records, old magazines and photos of baseball great Eddie Mathews in Simon’s basement.
“And probably how he came upon that video,” Franklin said.
“It’s been real hard on him — especially not seeing the kids at the end.”
Linda tells a story of walking with Ken into a church in Du Quoin, Ill., while on vacation and somebody saying, “Hey, Mr. Simon.”
That’s what happens when you teach 48 years, she said.
“No matter where we go, somebody knows him and comes up to say ‘Hi.’”
That will make him happy again someday. Probably. But now he hurts. And Aug. 18 is coming fast.
“I may cry that day,” he said at the kitchen table.
Then he nodded.
“I was the best world history teacher that school ever had.”