Woman, possibly the oldest New Orleanian, dies at 108

Maggie 'Mother' Simmons
Maggie 'Mother' Simmons

Maggie “Mother” Simmons worked in a cafeteria at LSU for 50 years. For her, that was less than half her life.

When she died Sunday in New Orleans, she was 108, making her perhaps the city’s oldest resident.

Simmons was born March 15, 1906, in Batchelor, the youngest of 10 children.

Though she was a small woman, she had an unusually large heart, said Jeanette Givens, who for nearly 40 years has been married to one of Simmons’ three grandchildren.

Growing up poor in the small town of Batchelor, about midway between Baton Rouge and Alexandria, she and her family had little, and lessons about sharing were cemented early. Her dresses were made by hand from hopsack, and the few pieces of clothing she had were also used by siblings, Givens said.

“The days she was growing up, you had to share,” Givens said.

The daughter of sharecroppers, Simmons spent her days as a girl toiling in the sun.

When she was 6, she began to pick pecans, corn and cotton, grind corn to make grits, and cut firewood and cane.

Simmons moved to Baton Rouge at 40 and made the capital city her home for decades, living a quiet, simple life.

For 50 years she worked in a cafeteria at LSU. Every day she made a 3- or 4-mile trek in each direction on foot from her home to the campus and back.

She became a member of St. Joseph Baptist Church and remained an active member of the congregation for more than 60 years, Givens said. The Baton Rouge church is where her funeral will be celebrated.

In her spare time, she would make pecan candy, which she would sell for her church, and would tend to her garden, she told the New Orleans People Project.

Even as Simmons aged, she remained spry and independent, Givens said.

The only thing that slowed her down was an intestinal surgery about a dozen years ago that left her wheelchair-bound.

At that point she moved to New Orleans to live with Givens and her husband, Donald Ray Givens Sr.

Even confined to her chair, she still took care of herself and did her best to look after others.

“She was in her right mind,” Givens said. “The only thing that kept her down was not being able to walk.”

In recent years, she spent five days a week at Kingsley House, known as the oldest “settlement house” in the South, as a member of its Adult Services Program.

She was adopted by other participants as the matriarch of the group, leading to her nickname, “Mother.”

The program will miss someone who was a “very sweet person,” Jeanette Givens said.

Simmons is survived by two grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, 22 great-great-grandchildren and four great-great-great-grandchildren.

A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Joseph Baptist Church, 2510 Tennessee St., Baton Rouge. Visitation will begin at 9 a.m.

Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.