If longtime Evergreen resident Kent Simon has led a very accomplished life, he didn’t necessarily mean to.
“I never actually set out to do these things,” says Kent, matter-of-factly. “I’ve always just done what’s in front of me.”
Growing up in Englewood, for example, he had no particular thing for skiing. That was until a buddy who did insisted that Kent join him in applying to become a member of Loveland Ski Area’s ski patrol. Before he was done, Kent would help create a state-wide system of junior ski patrols and monitor slopes Geneva Basin to Berthoud Pass.
“I didn’t know how to ski when I started,” he smiles. “But I got hooked.”
As a student at Englewood High School, his thing was to become a veterinarian. As a student at the University of Denver, however, Kent came face-to-face with a host of new and fascinating possibilities, finishing his studies with a degree in communications methodology focused on group dynamics and social psychology and a position as a social worker for Larimer County. After a couple of years on the job, though, he began to suspect that his skills and his heartfelt desire to help children might be better employed elsewhere.
“With a caseload of up to 90 kids at a time, doing anything effective was tough,” he explains. “It occurred to me that the best place to work with kids is in the classroom.”
Kent returned to DU for a master’s degree in early childhood education and started scouting around for somewhere to use it. He didn’t have to look far.
“Jeffco was doubling its preschool program and there weren’t a lot of early-childhood educators at the time,” he says. “I walked right into it.”
Kent helped shape R-1’s early childhood education program into a model for the whole state to follow, working in everything from temporary school buildings to church basements and applying keen insights that are still key elements of the district’s early childhood education curriculum. After seven years spent developing Jeffco’s parent-ed preschool program, Kent moved up to first the primary and then the intermediate grades. At no time did he harbor ambitions to become a naturalist.
Kent moved up the canyon in 1976, and kept moving up until he reached Independence Heights. He didn’t necessarily plan on a permanent address in the mountain area. He just thought it might be nice to enjoy some quiet and maybe learn to fish.
“The environment grew on me. I found out I love it here.”
In 1985, while on summer break from teaching fifth- and sixth-grade students, Kent saw a posting for a position that had just opened up. The district was looking for a resident teacher at its Windy Peak Outdoor Lab School near Bailey. He hadn’t been looking for it, but there it was, and to Kent it looked like an interesting gig. He got the job, and he was right.
“It was intense, and it was a phenomenal team situation. It was definitely the highlight of my career.”
As Windy Peak’s resident teacher, Kent’s job wasn’t so much direct instruction as seeing that the parade of Jeffco teachers cycling through the remote facility had the necessary tools.
“A big part of my job was facilitating,” he says. “I made sure they had all the trees, bees, boulders and bears they needed to be effective.”
And with so many students and teachers from across the sprawling district passing under his observant eyes, Outdoor Lab also afforded Kent a unique perspective on the larger district.
“You could see how different teaching styles have different results, and the way different schools affect kids differently.”
Simon’s post at Outdoor Lab was one of nearly a hundred sacrificed to budget cuts in the early 1990s, and he finished out his career in more traditional settings. On the other hand, a big piece of Windy Peak followed him down from Tarryalls.
“One of the most dynamic things you can teach kids about nature is birds,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about them when I started, so I joined Evergreen Audubon. I’m a pretty good naturalist, now.”
Kent has made good use of his previously unsuspected talents as a naturalist. He’s volunteered with the United States Forest Service on Mount Evans, interpreting the wilderness area’s singular properties for interested visitors. He’s also contributed to the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas, and he’s currently compiling observations for a bird atlas of Bear Creek. And Kent remains a very active member of Evergreen Audubon. A longtime member and former president of its board, he represented the nonprofit during meetings to determine future character of Buchanan Park.
“It wasn’t something I set out to do. It just turned out that way.”
Kind of like how Simon came to be president of the Evergreen Jazz Festival. To get that complete picture, though, it’s necessary to go back a couple of steps, back to an elementary school cafeteria in Englewood.
“I’ll always be grateful to my sixth-grade teacher,” says Kent. “Every Friday afternoon he’d take us down to the cafeteria and teach us dancing. We learned how to swing dance and foxtrot, and we also learned some social skills. At school dances we actually danced while everybody else just stood around. I loved it, and I still do.”
Fast-forward to Evergreen, where Simon kept one foot in his youthful passion by volunteering his moves to local dance studios.
“I took a lot of salsa lessons,” he laughs. “I think I was really there just to help the gender balance, but it was a chance to keep dancing.”
Kent and his dance partner started attending the Jazz Festival to practice their steps. “We were just there to dance, but I started to think the festival was missing a bet by not offering dance lessons. The board was open to the idea, so I brought in some instructors and we started offering dance lessons at different festival venues.” That was 2008.
The lessons were a hit, of course, and before long Simon was invited to join the Evergreen Jazz Festival board. He’s been its president for the last two years running, a job he loves, and, like so many of Kent’s accomplishments, one that chose him instead of the other way around.
“I never set out to be anything,” he shrugs. “I just showed up to do a job that I could do.”