AMES, Iowa – Generations of future Iowa State University students will learn from Simon Estes without ever stepping foot in his classroom. The lessons will not come from a textbook or sheet of music, but in the example Estes has set as an internationally acclaimed opera singer and through his philanthropic work around the world.
The son of a coal miner and grandson of a slave, Estes has performed for kings and queens, at the Olympic Games and with artists such as Luciano Pavarotti and Ray Charles. For all the accomplishments and accolades he’s earned, Estes has given even more, and his contributions will be permanently recognized on campus in the new name of Music Hall.
“I’m humbled to have Music Hall named after me and I hope it’s an inspiration for people to work hard,” Estes said. “You never know what might happen in life, especially being an African American. I grew up with a lot of discrimination and I hope having the building named for me will motivate all young people.”
At 82, Estes, the F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Artist-in-Residence in Iowa State’s music and theatre departments, is still passionate about performing and teaching. He is in the midst of his “Roots and Wings” tour that he launched in 2010 to perform in all 99 Iowa counties, contributing half of his concert fee to scholarships for high school seniors.
To date, the Iowa native has awarded more than $220,000 in scholarships to students in 54 counties. Following each concert, Estes visits a local school to talk about the importance of education and share his life experience. Having grown up in a small town, Estes wants to share his talent and impact the lives of young people.
“I’ve always been interested in helping students, because I know what it’s like to struggle financially,” Estes said. “I call it my ‘Roots and Wings’ tour because my roots are in Iowa, and the wings are for the young people to fly off and achieve whatever they want to do.”
No plans to retire
Estes first performed in church and school choirs. As a student at the University of Iowa, he became the first black member of the university’s Old Gold Singers. In 1965, Estes made his operatic debut with the Deutsche Opera as Ramfis in Aida. In the 55 years since, he has performed for six U.S. presidents and two popes, with 115 orchestras and 84 international opera companies and on six continents.
Estes says he is blessed that he can still sing at his age. Most opera singers are forced to retire in their 50s or 60s, but Estes says he has no intention of retiring.
“I feel as long as I can continue to share my love for music and education, I’ll continue teaching,” he said. “Why should I sit around all day and watch television or play golf. I really enjoy working with students and I think it’s even healthy for me.”
Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen says Estes is an illuminating teacher and mentor. He has not only inspired students with his vocal talents, but through his personal story of perseverance, courage and faith.
“Dr. Estes is an equally passionate humanitarian and philanthropist who has impacted countless lives in Iowa and around the world,” she said. “We are so proud to have an Iowa State building bear his name, ensuring that future generations of Cyclones will know Simon Estes.”
Beyond his work on campus, Estes has created a lasting legacy through his humanitarian work around the world. He established a foundation in Switzerland to provide financial assistance for children in need, and initiated a music school in Cape Town, South Africa. Estes continues to work with the United Nations Foundation to raise money for mosquito nets as part of an effort to eliminate malaria in Africa.