Simmons was then the Y's activities director, working under Rand Bailey. The prayer breakfast grew out of a non-denominational prayer group that met at Clinton's First Presbyterian Church. What became a week-long series each spring began in a brainstorming session attended by Bailey, Simmons and First Baptist Church pastor Russell Dean, early in 1979. About 100 kids attended the first one, in the Fellowship Hall of Dean's church that spring.
"Our speakers talk to the students about real-life issues," Simmons said. "I think we've made a difference in some lives."
Now it's an optional affair held at Clinton High School, conducted under the auspices of the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and 896 students, teachers and community leaders attended the one held on Wednesday morning.
In the event's 40 years (1979-2018), that's a record.
Simmons succeeded Bailey as YMCA director in 1980. He has organized what is now a week-long series ever since.
"I resumed it," Simmons said. "To say I started it is incorrect. Rand (Bailey) and Russell (Dean) were heavily involved. I was at the meetings."
The breakfast moved from the Fellowship Hall to Hodges Hall at Broad Street Methodist Church, then found a home in the 1980s when First Baptist Church built its Family Life Center. There were logistical problems. In the beginning, the prayer breakfasts began at 6:45 a.m., and organizers arranged for students to be bused to their schools. Parents were responsible for getting their kids there.
Clinton High School has a daily "flex time" each morning that is used for a variety of uses: programs, tutoring, club meetings, etc. By making the Prayer Breakfasts an option for flex time, attendees can be fed in the cafeteria (outsiders pay $3), and attend the program in the gymnasium. Former Presbyterian College basketball coach Gregg Nibert closed out this year's series on Friday morning. Nibert now works for the FCA.
Because it is sponsored by the school FCA, and thus student-led, it remains faith-based even though conducted at a public school. The CHS athletic department provides busing for Clinton Middle School students to get them to their nearby school. The series moved to CHS in 2016 after securing approval from the District 56 school board.
"Now we have an opportunity to draw from so many more students," Simmons said. "We made the transition there (to CHS) to get more students and more participation. It's not compulsory; it's elective. Students can be tutored or go to other meetings, but what happens is it snowballs as the week goes on. Word gets around about what a speaker said, and more come the next day to see for themselves."
One of the first speakers, in 1979, was ex-New York Yankees second baseman and University of South Carolina baseball coach Bobby Richardson. The most popular speaker has been Clebe McClary, a decorated Vietnam veteran who suffered grave injuries there. McClary has spoken seven different times, the first in 1979 and the most recent in 2013.
Among other past speakers were the Atlanta Falcons' John Small and Steve Bartkowski, NFL wide receiver Perry Tuttle, baseball great Alvin Dark, famed basketball coach Bones McKinney, soccer star Kyle Rote Jr., and political strategist Harry Dent. Local sports figures such as Nibert, King Dixon, Cally Gault, Shell Dula and Harold Nichols have appeared.
This year's daily speakers, in addition to Nibert, were Shannon Powell, Tony Eubanks, Marc Mero and Major Lacy Gunnoe.
"What makes me most proud," Simmons said, "is when I see people who came as students now come with their children. That's special."