Saunders

Big man barely noticed in death

Staff WriterSeptember 18, 2009 

— The obituary in the newspaper read Edward Rayfield Simmons, but most people knew him simply as Rayfield.

They knew him as a strong man in his day, almost mythically strong. Able to carry a bag of coal in each hand or to lift and toss a bale of hay with one.

Simmons was not, however, strong enough to survive a collision with a car Friday night.

In 24 hours last weekend in which the City of Oaks became the City of Agony, four people died in auto-related accidents. Three of the victims were a 9-year-old Cary boy on a skateboard, a 20-year-old ballerina killed by a surgeon who had been drinking and a groom who died hours before his wedding. It would be easy for the fourth death -- a 66-year-old man killed while walking in the middle of a dark street, perhaps while intoxicated -- to be forgotten.

Simmons' friends and family hope that doesn't happen.

They want people to know that the man often seen walking was a decent human being whose life deserves to be noted, and not just for the way it ended.

Simmons died about 11 p.m. Friday near Garner and Tryon roads, when he was struck by a car driven by John Owen Bradley. Police suspect both men had been drinking. Bradley, 39, was charged with DWI.

Simmons stood 6 feet, 4 inches and weighed about 235 pounds, said his sister, Thelma Williams, with whom he lived on Pettigrew Street in Raleigh. She described him as a "healthy, big man" who was always gentle with her children.

Often, Simmons' clothes would be disheveled.

"If you didn't know him, you'd be afraid of him," said Larry Clark, who met Simmons in the late 1960s and talked with him often. "The way he dressed, the way he looked, he might've frightened some people. Once you got to know him, he was as harmless as a housecat."

Simmons hung out in the neighborhood around Webb's mini mart on Old Garner Road, and many there knew him. Sometimes, Simmons bought beer at Webb's.

Sharon Galloway, a cashier at the store, described Simmons as "a very nice man, always nice and mannerable. He was killed less than two hours after he left here. A guy came back in and told us all about it."

Simmons was a prodigious worker when he was young, say those who knew him then.

"I came to Raleigh in '65 and knew Rayfield from when he worked on my father-in-law's farm," said Bobby Fowler, owner of Fowler & Sons, a Raleigh heating and air-conditioning company. "He was always a quiet person, didn't have a lot to say. He was a really hard worker, extremely strong. I had just got out of the Marines and was a horse myself, but I was nothing compared to him."

Fowler said he and Simmons stacked hay together.

"I've had him almost knock me off the trailer with a bale of hay" when he tossed it up onto and sometimes over the trailer, Fowler said.

After alcohol and age diminished Simmons' ability to work as hard, Galloway said, people in the community looked after him. "People were always handing him $20 or $50 and saying 'Rayfield, don't let anyone take that from you,' " she said.

"Who's gonna take something from Rayfield?" said Clark, laughing.

Cindy Vuncannon, who works for Fowler's company, said she never met Simmons but, "I saw him my whole life, since I was a little girl. I wish I'd done something for him. That's what I told my little boy today. He just seemed like the most gentle man. It breaks my heart."

Clark said he isn't too surprised that Simmons' life ended as it did. "I hate to say it, but I expected it because he walked in the middle of the road at night. ... He seldom accepted a ride. He preferred to walk."

Williams, Simmons' sister, also feared for her brother.

"He used to drink real bad, but I'd get on him real bad so he quit," she said. "He'd come in sometimes smelling like beer, but he wasn't drunk. ... I tried to have him locked up once, but the woman at [Wake County] Mental Health said he wasn't a threat to himself or anyone else.

"I asked her if walking in the road at night down the middle of the road at night didn't make him a threat to himself."

barry.saunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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