Simons celebrated for service

Corryn Brock, News Editor

Provost Jay Gatrell presented Dr. Sheila Simons, Eastern’s lead COVID-19 investigator, with the 2020 Luis Clay-Mendez Distinguished Service Award Tuesday afternoon.

A small group gathered to watch the award be presented.

The award is given to “the EIU faculty member or department chair who best exemplifies dedication and achievement in service to the university, their profession, and the community at large (local, state, national, international),” according to the Faculty Senate website.

Gatrelll gave a short speech before presenting the award,

“If there’s anyone who has gotten it done in this year on this campus it has been Dr. Sheila Simons,” Gatrell said. “You’ve done it for the sake of campus, you’ve trained our students, you’ve done amazing, amazing things.”

He said no one deserves the award as much as Simons.

Two individuals, Lauri DeRuiter-Willems and Nikki Hillier, professors in the Department of Public Health and friends of Simons, wrote letters of support for Simons to be the recipient of the award.

Both women shared their experiences with Simons and why they believed she was deserving of the award.

Hillier shared a story about Simons working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I heard her on a phone call, calming a mom down. Her daughter had to be quarantined. The mom was so angry because the student had not tested positive. Dr. Simons took all the time she needed to explain to the mom why her daughter needed to be quarantined, and to assure her that her daughter was in good hands, saying, ‘My job involves three major duties: Challenge the students and give them space to challenge me; protect them; and love them,’” Hillier wrote. “The call ended with, ‘Of course, you are welcome. Call anytime.’”

Hillier expressed that was just one example of Simons dedication to students during the pandemic.

“I’ve seen her hand her keys off to random students who need to go to test for COVID, pick up feminine hygiene products for students in quarantine, and delivered needed items like charger cords and Sleepytime tea. Again, nothing is too big or too small,” Hillier said. “She has become the face of the COVID response in Coles County, literally; the Masked Epidemiologist logo is seen all over town. Her lending her likeness to this campaign has allowed EIU’s Public Health Department to raise at least $1,000 in funds for scholarships.”

DeRuiter-Willems spoke of her knowledge of the man the award is named after, Luis Clay-Mendez, and why she felt Simons was deserving of the award.

“When this call for nominations came, I thought Sheila would be a great example. I knew Dr. Clay-Mendez from my time as a student in the 1980’s. My fellow student workers and I looked forward to seeing him in Campus Recreation when he came to play racquetball,” DeRuiter-Willems wrote. “His energy and kindness remind me of Sheila’s spirit. There are many examples of her service and engagement with students, colleagues and to the public health profession that I feel meet the criteria for this award.”

On the Faculty Senate website, Simons’ biography shines a light on why she was selected for the award:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic she delivered information to the public and academic community through presentations and papers, spearheaded contract tracing on campus, and works to assist students and faculty with understanding proper procedures at EIU. Outside of EIU, she assisted with delivering food to older residents in the community and held community meetings to respond to questions regarding the virus. She puts students first by working to fundraise for scholarships and delivered needed items for students in quarantine. Her hard work and dedication to EIU and the community has been exceptional, particularly during a time of substantial disruption and concern.”

However, Simons said she could not have done the work she has done throughout the pandemic without the people supporting her: contact tracers Hillier, Makenzie Reynolds, Paul Abraham, Annabelle Heddell, Juliana Gratzl, Monique Mays, Ambrosia Roberts, Paul Nobel, Allyn Francis, Nathan Wehr, Kevin Hoferer, Emily Bernard, Kassandra Garcia, Chris Halle, Jordyn Hayes; the medical team members James Nave, Jan Baker, Kimberly Dowland, Becky Ogle, Nikki Hite, Eric Davidson, Joseph Baumgart; Housing and Dining employees Mark Hudson and Jody Stone and administrators Gatrell, Anne Flaherty and Julie Dietz.

“Here on campus, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” Simons said.

Looking forward, Simons said she is unsure of what the future looks like regarding COVID-19.

“I know that I’ve done my job well if people are saying ‘you kind of went overboard there’ or ‘it wasn’t as bad as you said it would be,’” Simons said.

She said she is happy to see the end of the academic year, adding that she hopes to see mandatory vaccines for students in the coming year.

“When you consider that it’s not just individual body autonomy, it effects the overall public health, it’s different,” Simons said.


Corryn Brock can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected]