Murray Simon moved to Columbia with his wife in 1989 to raise their three daughters, not to become a trailblazing advocate for Hispanic education in the county.
But old habits die hard. Simon was fresh from 25 years of assisting African and Latin America countries to structure their education systems, and it was only a matter of time before he was back on his education crusade.
"When we came into Columbia we were thinking this would be a place to retire and have other fun activities," said Juana Simon, his wife of 30 years. "But coming here, we saw the Spanish population was growing, and they needed help."
Simon will step down tomorrow as president of Conexiones -- a community group that promotes Hispanic education in Howard County -- when a new president is elected. The organization, which he helped found in 2000, offers tutoring, brings in speakers and sponsors educational field trips. It also holds a convocation ceremony for Hispanic graduating high school seniors and works with the school system to increase the number of Hispanic teachers.
Simon, 81, was born in the East Harlem section of New York City. His father, a haberdashery store owner, died when Simon was 14, leaving Simon's mother with three children to raise. "The experience of being poor and helpless is something that hit home," Simon said.
He received a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in Spanish literature from New York University.
While attending NYU, Simon, who is not Hispanic, formed Friends of Spanish Speaking People. With the assistance of two graduate students, Simon began to teach Puerto Rican immigrants English and how to adjust to New York City life.
His work with Friends of Spanish Speaking People prepared him for his first international assignment: the study of school facilities in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Later, Simon worked with ministries of education in several countries. He spent 10 years in Africa, including stops in Liberia, Botswana, and Namibia; and a 14-year-tour of Latin America that included stops in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, El Salvador and Guatemala.
"As a result of these experiences, I got to understand and know the students who lived in urban and rural areas," Simon said.
During his stay in Latin America, Simon met and married his wife, Juana, a mathematician technician from Bolivia. When it was time for the Simons to settle in the United States, they decided on Columbia.
"San Francisco had earthquakes, Boston was too cold," Simon said. "We decided on the Washington area. By the process of elimination, we found Columbia. ... I visited the [Columbia] welcome center, and I was hooked. I liked it. We decided Columbia would be the place for us."
In 1999, Simon started to host terulias, social functions popular in Spain, for the county's Hispanic residents. The Sunday gatherings regularly attracted about 125 people. Through the terulias -- which were held at Oakland Mills Village Center, Howard Community College, and Kahler Hall -- Simon began to learn some of the concerns of the Hispanic community.
"They seemed to be an invisible group," Simon said.
With the help of the college, Simon held a conference in September 2000 that helped to identify education as the main issue in the Hispanic community. In response, Conexiones was soon formed by Simon and the Rev. Walter Rodriguez of the First Church of the Nazarene in Ellicott City.
"Hispanic students were at the bottom of the academic ladder in relationship with other groups," Simon said.
Roger J. Lerner, a business lawyer, business owner and adviser, has worked with Conexiones for two years. He met Simon three years ago as part of the school system's anti-bullying task force.
"When I first met him, I did not realize that he was the world-shaker he was," Lerner said. Through working with the task force, Lerner learned of Simon's accomplishments, ranging from the Purple Heart that he earned as an infantryman in World War II to his stints in Africa and Latin America.
"His many years of experience and broad range of life experiences give him wisdom and insight," Lerner said. "He's a perfect gentleman. He has the gift of a great teacher in letting people come to understand things on their own."
Sydney L. Cousin, the county school superintendent, agrees that Simon has been invaluable to the county's Hispanic community.
"Murray Simon has been an outstanding spokesman for the Hispanic community in Howard County for many years," Cousin said. "I know from his past experiences he is a wise and knowledgeable person and a person with which I have had the pleasure to work."
Conexiones has grown to 300 members, according to Simon, and in 2006 the group's board increased to 20 members from eight.
Conexiones serves as the umbrella organization for several school-based programs that include Ritmo Latino, a student organization at Oakland Mills Middle School; and a recently launched after-school program Hispanic students at Guilford Elementary School.
The annual convocation hosted by Conexiones celebrates the accomplishments of graduating seniors of Hispanic heritage in the county. Students are chosen based on their academic achievement, overcoming adversity, community service and leadership. At the convocation, students are given certificates of achievement, college scholarships and gifts.
The first convocation in 2002 honored 12 students from seven high schools, Simon said. This year, 29 students from nine high schools were honored. Seven of the students honored this year had a weighted grade point average of higher than 4.0, and two were the top students at their schools.
"The most rewarding part is the feeling of reaching them ... and that someone is looking out for them," Simon said.
Simon's work has been acknowledged at the state and county level.
In 2003, he won the Nancy S. Grasmick Education Award and the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission Award; in 2005, he was given the Audrey Robbins Volunteer of the Year Award by the Association of Community Services; and in 2006 he received the Educator of the Year Award from the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
County Executive Ken Ulman signed a resolution proclaiming May 19 as Murray Simon Day in Howard County.
Simon promises to remain a presence with Conexiones, where he will be immediate past president. "I'll do what I can to complement what the new administration is doing," he said. "Hopefully, I'll be able to fill in some gaps."