When Grant Simmon isn’t directing events such Lollapalooza, the Hangout Music Festival or President Obama’s inauguration, the 2000 alum is setting the stage for an event that’s a little closer to home and his heart: the NIU Foundation Red and Black.
When scholarship recipient Moonja Jeong, ’12, stepped into the spotlight at the 2012 Red and Black, her goal was to deliver a performance that would show her audience her profound gratitude.
Little did the rising star know: She had Grant Simmon working behind the scenes, making sure the moment was as big as her beautiful voice.
Simmon enjoys making NIU students, faculty and standout philanthropists shine, so much so that he’s volunteered since 2009 as technical producer for the Red and Black, the NIU Foundation’s annual event showcasing the university.
Simmon is a member of the event’s planning committee, which is co-chaired by Jeff (’70) and Kimberly Yordon and Ellen Chessick. Coordinating the event is a big job, requiring dozens of hours of planning, set design, staging, lighting and rehearsals.
The acting graduate says he thrives on the challenge.
Simmon got a chance to thrive last year when it became clear that Jeong’s vocal performance would require a grand piano. “There was no way we could have our star standing in front of a keyboard,” he says.
However, renting a piano would be far more expensive than a keyboard, and there were other logistical concerns. “Even if we could build a stage that would support a grand piano,” he says, “we’d need a forklift to get it up there.”
Yet, by all appearances, Jeong performed next to a full-sized grand piano Feb. 18 – a piano with a little secret inside. Simmon had a façade built to disguise the lighter, more cost-effective keyboard. “I don’t think anyone knew the difference,” he laughs.
Everyone involved agrees having Simmon around not only makes the Red and Black program possible, it makes it less stressful.
“We all feel at ease knowing Grant is running the show – from crew call until the credits roll,” says Mallory M. Simpson, president of the NIU Foundation.
Even as a seasoned pro, Simmon admits to getting a little rattled every once in a while. “There’s nothing fun about the hour before opening night,” he says. “I’m nervous. You’d think I was going out there on stage to sing myself!”
The greatest thrill of the process is the outpouring of emotion that comes from the audience, Simmon says. “It’s magical when they’re wrapped up in a moment we’ve worked so hard to create,” he says. “It’s especially rewarding when that emotion is for my alma mater.”
Although Simmon donates his time, the event still comes with a price tag.
Equipment rentals and staging costs add up, which is why securing sponsorships is a major focus of the committee’s efforts. When it comes to finding supporters, no one holds a candle to committee co-chair Jeff Yordon. Last year, he raised more than half the show’s sponsorships. “There’s no way we could put on a program of this caliber without underwriters,” Simpson says. “The Yordons have given NIU so much, and Jeff isn’t shy about asking others to join him in support of NIU. We are very grateful.”
With every decision he makes, Simmon guards each dollar the committee raises. “I welcome the challenge of accomplishing great feats on a tight budget,” he says.
For now, the acting alumnus is keeping busy with gigs such as the Spring Awakening Festival, Bonnaroo and the Electric Forest Festival. He is also enjoying time with his wife, Nicole, and two daughters, Grace and Nyla.
“Whatever I could give financially to NIU would surely pale in comparison with what I bring to the table with my passion,” he says. “My mom and dad (Jaymie, ’70 and Harry Simmon, ’69) always taught me that you need to provide people an opportunity to give. NIU gave me my opportunity to give, and I hope my work creates opportunities for others to do the same.”
For more information about the NIU Foundation, visit www.niufoundation.org.