BIG CYPRESS — For nearly 25 years Leoma Simmons ushered telephone calls and paperwork through the Seminole cattle program offices on Big Cypress and Brighton reservations.
On Oct. 30, Simmons left her desk as bookkeeper and office manager to concentrate on raising her own cattle – and doting on her grandchildren. Her retirement sendoff, held at the 11th annual cattle program summary session in Big Cypress Oct. 29, came with heartfelt appreciation from dozens of Seminole cattle owners and a cake dotted with plastic grazing cows.
“Prior to [Leoma] we were always trying to do what is being done now,” said cattleman Stanlo Johns. “I gave her a hard time; we all did. But in her 25 years, Leoma probably learned more than anyone else. Now, she’ll see if she can put what she knows to different work.”
Simmons, of Brighton, began her career in the Natural Resource Department in March 1990. The grand-niece of cattle owner Morgan Smith and one of the Tribe’s first cattlewomen Happy Jones, Simmons was promoted from receptionist to office manager in 2001 when Oneva Baxley retired and joined Brighton’s Culture Department.
Through her career, Simmons provided yearly income and inventory reports, coordinated cattle workdays, aided with staffing issues, played secretary to cattle owners committees and served as the right hand to the late Don Robertson through 2012 when Alex Johns took over.
But Simmons already had a decade of work experience as an employee of the Seminole Tribe of Florida before joining the cattle program team.
Two months after her 1980 graduation from Moore Haven High School, Simmons started full swing as a floor clerk at the Tampa bingo hall. In 1992 she went back to school at Indian River Community College, where she earned a certificate in computer introduction.
Simmons brought computer education from the classroom to the cow pen when she helped steer technology into the cattle ranching realm during the early 2000s.
In July 2007, her image pegged a spot in the Florida Memory project, the State Library and Archives of Florida website for digitalized historical and cultural photographs and information. Photographed during a cattle workday in Big Cypress, Simmons is shown inputting data into a laptop computer.
The illustration punctuated the Tribe’s progression from a downhome cattle operation to a sophisticated business that uses electronic ID tags and other technology to track each animal’s life and medical history. Technology also established cutting-edge marketing strategies that now include televised and online auctions nationwide.
Big Cypress Board Rep. and cattle owner Joe Frank thanked Simmons for helping evolve the program into the profitable beef production business Seminole Pride Beef.
“For the last couple of years, while we tried to transition and make changes, Leoma fielded a lot of phone calls to help get it done,” Rep. Frank said.
Simmons said Tribal members were always asking why she did not own cattle.
“I was always giving advice to people and they would want to know why I didn’t have any cows of my own. Well, I didn’t have land for starters,” Simmons said.
Simmons purchased her own head in 2012 when land became available in Big Cypress. She then began to consider retirement.
“It started to feel like I was in a weird situation, uncomfortable like a conflict of interest,” she said.
Brighton Board Rep. Larry Howard said he “hated to lose” her.
“We’ll miss you,” Rep. Howard told Simmons in front of the room filled with cattle owners. “You multitasked just like all of us. You’ve been a teammate and can always come home. We’ll have a spot for you.”
Natural Resource Director Alex Johns bid Simmons farewell but doubted if his former assistant would really stay away.
“[Leoma] told me she finally felt comfortable enough with me in charge that she could turn me loose, but I’m not sure about that,” Johns said. “She might be back next week asking questions.”
Meanwhile, tears welled in the eyes of longtime coworkers and friends, including Emma Urbina and Margaret Williams who stood to offer goodbyes.
“I came three years ago and knew nothing about this tough and wonderful job. Leoma taught me so much – and she was a great sounding board,” Williams said.
Rep. Frank said the fact that Simmons is a cattle owner ensures that she will not disappear from the cattle business. One way or another, her work is far from over.
“Welcome to retirement. See you in the pastures,” Rep. Frank said.
For now, Simmons is enjoying every day as if she is on vacation – though her days include trips to Big Cypress to check that gates are secured, cows are where they belong and the herd is fed even on weekends.
“I don’t think retirement has set in yet,” Simmons said.