Reston citizens, elected officials and old friends gathered at the Hyatt Regency Reston on Sunday to honor Reston founder Robert E. Simon.
Simon died in September at age 101, and there was no formal funeral or memorial service at that time. Sunday’s program, “In Celebration of the Life of Robert E. Simon Jr.,” served as a way for people to memorialize Simon, who would have turned 102 yesterday.
The gathering — which featured Simon’s favorite drink, a Danish Mary (Bloody Mary with Aquavit) — capped Founders Week activities in Reston.
The formal part of the service featured some of Simon’s favorite showtunes, including selections from Jerome Kern played by a string quartet and a piece commissioned with the Reston Chorale for Simon’s 100th birthday in 2014.
There was also a short film by Rebekah Wingert-Jabi, the director of Another Way of Living: The Story of Reston, VA. The film, made from some the footage from the longer-form Another Way of Living, captured some of Simon’s signature vigor and wit.
“From the waist up, I feel about 65,” he said on his 99th birthday. “From the waist down, I am about 125.”
Reston resident Kristina Alcorn recently published a book, In His Own Words: Stories From the Extraordinary Life of Reston’s Founder, Robert E. Simon. Alcorn gave an overview of Simon’s life before he founded Reston in the early 1960s.
She showed a slideshow of young Simon — with his sisters in New York City, bike riding in Europe as a young man, and at age 23, taking over as president of Carnegie Hall after the death of his father.
Gino Francesconi, Carnegie Hall archivist, said Reston and the famed performance hall have something in common. When the cornerstone of Carnegie Hall was laid in 1889, it was 3 1/2 miles north of midtown Manhattan.
Critics said pretty much the same thing when Simon envisioned Reston where there were dirt roads and cow pastures.
“But if you were good enough, people went the extra mile to see you,” said Francesconi. “And here we are sitting today on what was a dairy farm.”
Francesconi said he was pleased to meet Simon in his later years — and to give him his rightful place in Carnegie Hall history. Simon, Francesconi, discovered, knocked $250,000 off the price of of $5 million when he sold Carnegie Hall to the city in 1960. Reaching the deal saved Carnegie Hall from being torn down.
“Bob Simon’s name will forever be linked to the history of Carnegie Hall,” said Francesconi.
Simon used the proceeds of the sale to purchase the Virginia acreage that would become Reston. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va. 11th) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) reflected on how Simon’s vision of an open and integrated community was revolutionary in 1962.
“At Harvard, Bob was blackballed from all the clubs because he was Jewish,” said Connolly. “Though Bob said that really did not influence him, he took not bitterness, but justice to be addressed when he decided this place would be an integrated place in segregated Virginia.”
“He loved every minute of it, his connection with the community he founded,” said Connolly.
Said Kaine: “Bob could have picked a lot of places in 1962 that would have been a whole lot easier. But Bob said ‘let’s be welcoming.’ That’s who Bob was, because of the experiences he had.”