Remembering a trailblazer

Bernadine A. ‘Bernie’ Simmons paved the way for others to follow

Debora Timms | 1/25/2024, 6 p.m.
Bernadine A. ‘Bernie’ Simmons, the late television news anchor and creator of Richmond’s popular “12 About Town” segment for WWBT-NBC12, …
Ms. Simmons

Bernadine A. ‘Bernie’ Simmons, the late television news anchor and creator of Richmond’s popular “12 About Town” segment for WWBT-NBC12, was remembered by friends and colleagues on Saturday, Jan. 13, at Joseph Jenkins Jr. Funeral Home in Richmond.

Born in Aliquippa, Pa. on Aug. 14, 1944, to the late Asbury H.L. Johnson and Gladys (Mann) Johnson, Ms. Simmons earned her bachelor’s degree from Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University and started her career in that same city on WTAE-TV before eventually moving to Richmond.

While it is unclear if Ms. Simmons was Richmond’s first Black woman television reporter, she was definitely the first that her former colleague, Diane Walker, saw on her screen. For a teenager who dreamed of being a reporter, it was a revelation.

“For me, Bernie was a mirror to see myself through,” Ms. Walker said in a recent telephone interview. “She provided the inspiration and the confirmation that I could also pursue my dream of becoming a broadcast journalist.”

When they later worked together, Ms. Walker said she was always in awe at “the naturalness with which Bernie stepped into a purpose bigger than she.

“She was a trailblazer. She came to slay and she left no crumbs,” Ms. Walker added. “Bernie was fierce, fearless, tough and wise. A bad-ass who was also wonderful and amazing.”

Other friends and colleagues echo these sentiments.

NBC12’s General Manager and Regional Vice President of Gray Television, Kym Grinnage, recalled his first meeting with Ms. Simmons.

He had just relocated to Richmond from New York, joining NBC12 as an account executive in 1990.

“I knew nothing about Richmond and didn’t know a single person in the state of Virginia,” he said. “One of the first to embrace me was Bernie Simmons.”

She took him to lunch and gave him the lay of the land in her own no-nonsense style.

“There was no in-between with Bernie,” he added. “She was true to who she was. She said what she meant and she meant what she said.”

From the early ’80s to the mid ’90s until Ms. Simmons moved to a sister station in Charlotte, N.C., the “12 About Town” segment made her a recognizable face in Richmond, as did her involvement with numerous boards and organizations in the area, such as the Richmond Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Richmond Renaissance, the Women’s Resource Center and Richmond AIDS Ministry.

Ms. Walker says these were more than segments — they were like a “conduit that brought people and communities together.”

“I remember Bernie having such a dynamic presence both while on air, but also in the community,” Willie Redd, former chief photographer for NBC12, shared in an email.

He and other former NBC12 colleagues credit her example and her guidance as being influential to their careers. Ben Hamlin said in an email that it was Ms. Simmons who encouraged him to go from photographer to on-air reporter, while longtime former NBC12 news anchor Sabrina Squire shared a time where Ms. Simmons provided a valued lesson about serving the community that watches and supports your work.

“Bernie paved the way for me and many other reporters at NBC12,” Ms. Squire wrote.”She set a standard of excellence to which we all aspired.”

In his own emailed remembrance, retired NBC12 anchor Gene Cox’s final words are a testament to the loss felt by all who knew her.

“Her passing creates a vacuum in our lives.”

Ms. Simmons’ son, Michael B. Simmons, and younger sister, Cathy J. Johnson, preceded her in death.

She leaves to cherish her memory her granddaughter, Tyjaisha Garner, siblings Carla Hill, Asbury T. Johnson (Norma), Kendall H. Johnson (Cynthia), Beth Johnson-Harris (David), Bonny Johnson, and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.