About 502 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee in Citronelle, Alabama a baby
boy was born in a doctor’s office into a conservative southern family of a
teenage mother and hard-working father. This baby boy would grow up to
be to Knoxville what Armistead Maupin was to San Francisco, someone
trusted to tell the tales of our city.
For the first year of Alan’s life his family lived in a trailer on his grandparents
land. At age one, his parents moved the trailer to a trailer park in Saraland,
Alabama where Alan remained the rest of his youth before seeking freedom
from oppression and moving to an out-of-state college for graduate school.
“My brother and I grew up real conservative, typical south Alabama,” says
Alan of his childhood. He describes his parents as “good parents.” Alan calls
his father, “The best man I have ever known, an incredible guy.” The
sincerity in Sims voice echoes the pain felt of the recent loss of his father.
Alan’s father worked in the oil fields before Alan was born but promptly quit
when told of his wife’s pregnancy. Alan’s father quit the oil field because he
did not want to be like his father and have to move around with the job,
which was the custom in that era. To provide stability, Alan’s father took a
job at the local paper mill and remained there until Alan left home. During
his tenure, Mr. Sims worked hard and moved up the career ladder and had a
nice career at the paper mill. Alan describes his father as, “super slow to
anger, super kind.” Alan mentions the only time he ever saw his father
angry enough to hit someone is because someone else was being hurt. “He
was quiet and soft spoken, he never raised his voice, but you knew he
meant business,” says Alan.
Mr. Sims was very religious and lived by his faith. Before his passing, Mr.
Sims was in the hospital on an off-and-on basis for two-and-half weeks
before passing. While in the hospital Mr. Sims was sitting up in his bed
calling on sick people because he felt the need to check on them. Alan states
that, “dad would visit sick people, take food to people that needed food. He
was a servant kind of person. I don’t believe I ever heard the man lie, and I
know I never heard him cuss.” Alan tells a fun but endearing story of his
father. As the story goes, his father used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a
day. When Alan was two, he picked up a stick and imitated his father
smoking. His father threw away his cigarettes and never smoked again.
“That was the kind of character he was and the kind of character he had,”
Alan describes his mother as, “super smart and driven.” Up until Alan was
ten-years-old, his mother was a stay-at-home mom and wife. In 1968, when
Alan was 10, Mobile Infirmary Hospital broke with tradition and allowed
married women to enroll in the nursing program. A program that was
exclusive to single women prior to 1968. Alan’s father saw the employment
ad in the local paper and encouraged Alan’s mother to enroll. She did! Mrs.
Sims excelled in nursing school, enjoyed it, and made a career in the field.
She was the school health nurse for years, a position she enjoyed
immensely. Believing in the importance of education, Mrs. Sims continued
her education and received a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling
when Alan was 20 years old.
Alan’s mother’s appreciation of education did not rub off on a young Alan,
sometimes making their relationship a more complicated one. “I don’t
remember elementary school, I may have liked it. I did not like middle
school, but I did well because mother was demanding,” declares Alan. Alan
attended a small, private Christion school, Greystone Christian School in
Mobile, Alabama. Like many teenagers, Alan knew what he was going to do
with his life after graduation. “By high school, I knew I would not go to
college and I would become a singer/songwriter and become famous.” Alan
was convinced he would be the next Bob Dylan. He practiced the craft, wrote
songs, willed himself to play the guitar but at the end of the day Alan
realized he had no talent. He explains, “I had enough talent that my high-
school friends thought I had talent, but I didn’t have talent. My brother on
the other hand has a master’s degree in piano performance and is super
Alan graduated high school in 1976, during that time period a cultural shift
was happening in America and in the South. A shift was not only happening
in America, but in Alan also, he was finishing high school and ready to rebel.
“My politics started veering leftward and my dad’s was very much right. It
didn’t finish its total swing until graduate school,” explains Alan.
Alan did end up going to college, by way of bribery. His father struck a deal
with him, if Alan would go to college for one year his father would give him a
1973 Dodge Dart. It worked. Alan has scholarship offers to his favorite
college, Louisiana State University, however, his parents did not want him to
leave home. “That is an example of how provincial they were in their views,”
says Alan. Staying close to home, Alan attended Mobile College, which is
now called the University of Mobile. Being a Baptist college, Mobile College
held the same conservative theme that Alan experienced in high school, but
for the first time in many years, Alan discovered that he really loved school.
Alan majored in psychology and poured himself into his studies and excelled.
Taking twice as many classes as needed, Alan left college in four years with
the equivalent of a double major. Towards the end of his undergrad career,
a professor asked Alan what his plans are. With a blank stare, Alan asked,
“What are you talking about?” Alan’s plan was to get a job, he assumed that
is what everyone did after college. Alan’s professor explained to him that his
undergraduate degree is in psychology, and there are not many options for
someone with that degree. Alan explains, “My professor knew a guy at the
University of Florida in the counseling program there. He suggested I go
down and talk to him about the graduate program, so I did.” For the first
time, Mr. Alan Sims left Alabama and headed for the land of jorts and
mullets, Gainesville, Florida and was in for a huge culture shock.
It is 1980 and many things are happening, trends are being set, music is
changing, and groups on the fringe are wanting to be heard. Alan discovered
all of this in Gainesville which he describes as a, “tiny, liberal enclave.” Alan,
still a staunch defender of Bob Dylan, blames disco for destroying any
semblance of the music he enjoyed. The synthesized tunes of the ’80s is
something Alan detested.
Alan talks about a specific moment that began opening his mind and exposed
him to the idea there are other people that thought alternately. To be more
active on campus Alan went to the student union center to what activities
and clubs may interest him. There was no internet or website at this time,
students would have to look at a large board and see when groups met. Alan
noticed UFLAGS met on Tuesday nights and was baffled at what that group
could be. Solving his curiosity he finally asked someone about UFLAGS and
was told it is the University of Florida Lesbian and Gay Society. “It was mind
blowing! It was the first time I realized there are places where people are
out and it is O.K. and my perceived stereotypes about Gay people are not
right,” he explains. Alan was already at a point in life where he was
receptive to these kinds of ideas. The counseling program he was in was
populated with a large group of former hippies. This exposure helped Alan
learn a great deal about life during his time in the master’s program. Alan
reminisces and declares, “The University of Florida really changed my wife
and myself. We were at the perfect age and in the perfect moment to be
receptive to bigger ideas about the world.”
Yes, Alan was married while in college. Alan knew Karen back in high schools
through mutual friends but it wasn’t until undergrad they took time to get to
know each other better. They clicked and junior year of college decided to
get married. Alan speaks of Karen with the kind of endearment that only
comes with being with the love of your life. Alan describes Karen as,
“Wonderful. She is the best thing that has ever happened to me. For
starters, I thought she was beautiful and she is also one of the kindest
people I have ever met.” Alan appreciated her persona of no drama, how
comfortable she was with herself, and the simple ease of being around her.
Alan expresses what a great life partner Karen has been and how they were
just children when they got married and he has enjoyed growing up and
experiencing life with her.
Post-grad-school life was not as glamorous as expected, Alan and Karen
were broke and borderline poverty stricken in Florida. After graduation, Alan
realized he can be broke and unemployed anywhere, basically giving them
the freedom to move wherever their young hearts desired. The influence
that Gainesville and grad school had on Alan and Karen they knew that
going back to Mobile, Alabama was not an option. “We had outgrown Mobile
and knew it would not be a good fit,” explains Alan. Alan thought he wanted
to get a PhD in counseling psychology and at that time there were only two
universities that offered that program, University of Southern Mississippi and
the University of Tennessee.
Alan knew where Tennessee was but was not familiar with Knoxville.
Finding Knoxville on the map he discovered the town was nestled close to
the Smoky Mountains, which excited Alan greatly since from the age of six
he had wanted to live in the mountains. The Knoxville landscape was a
bonus for Karen, unlike Alan who had traveled extensively with his family as
a child, had never seen a mountain. A decision was made, Alan and Karen
moved to Knoxville, Tennessee and made an apartment off Walker Springs
Rd. their new home. Their mentality was the University of Tennessee will
always be there, and they would get jobs as soon as they arrived in
Knoxville and hopefully, as Alan’s dad would say, “Have two nickels to rub