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Joseph 'Zastrow' Simms, Annapolis and civil rights activist, dies

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Joseph "Zastrow" Simms, known as a colorful and compassionate community activist who helped bridge racial and social gaps in Annapolis from as far back as the turbulent 1960s, died Monday.

Simms' niece Stacey Gaskin said Simms died of congestive heart failure, one month shy of his 79th birthday. He had been in home hospice care at her Arnold residence, she said.

Simms grew up in Annapolis in the 1930s and 1940s, when the state capital was separated along racial lines, but became popular throughout the city because of his athletic prowess at Bates High School. He once told The Baltimore Sun that he got his nickname from his sports hero, Naval Academy quarterback Robert "Zug" Zastrow.

As charismatic figure, he was known for his penchant to communicate with people of all walks of life. In the 1940s he forged a lasting friendship with Roger "Pip" Moyer, who would grow up to be mayor of Annapolis.

As a young adult, Simms fell into a life of crime and ended up in prison several times. He said he decided to turn his life around after his mother died in 1967. A year later, as streets around the country experienced rioting in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, Moyer, then mayor of Annapolis, got Simms released from prison for a few days, and the two canvassed Annapolis streets and implored calm among residents.

Simms was subsequently granted a full pardon by the state, landed a job in the city's urban renewal program and was later named director of the Stanton Community Center. He was known for taking Annapolis youngsters to sporting events and Broadway plays.

"When he was director of the Stanton Community Center, he would often take young people from Annapolis to what was then the Baltimore Civic Center for various shows," said Carl Snowden, chairman of the board of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis.

"He would be given 200 complimentary tickets by a promoter, and in typical Zastrow style he would go with 400 people, leaving it to the promoter to make a decision as to what to do with the other 200 kids," Snowden said Tuesday. "Inevitably, they would allow the kids to come in. He was known for being a huge advocate for young people."

A community center in Obery Court in Annapolis bears Simms' name. The Rev. Johnny Calhoun of Mount Olive AME Church in Annapolis, where Simms was a member, called Simms the "godfather of Annapolis."

"He was an icon ... the kind of guy that could deal with an individual in the gutter and have a conversation with the president of the United States," Calhoun said.

Simms and Moyer were also known for their lasting friendship. A 2008 documentary about the two, entitled "Pip and Zastrow: An American Friendship," played in venues across the country.

Simms is survived by his wife, Mary Lou Simms of Annapolis, daughter Desiree Simms of Annapolis and son Derrick Simms of Texas.

Gaskin said funeral arrangements are still pending, but in accordance with Simms' wishes the family plans to have a concert-style wake on one evening and a funeral service the following day. She said the family is seeking a venue to accommodate the services.

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