On September 7, 2023, Iowa-native Simon Estes received the 2023 Robert D. Ray Iowa SHARES Humanitarian Award. Governor Kim Reynolds and Ambassador Terry Branstad presented the award to Mr. Estes at the 17th annual Iowa Hunger Summit at the Norman E. Borlaug Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, Iowa. The award was presented to Mr. Estes for his profound humanitarian commitment to creating “peace through music” and elevating the voices of impoverished youth in Iowa and across the globe.
“Simon Estes is one of the most talented and humble Iowans I have ever met,” said Amb. Terry Branstad, President, World Food Prize Foundation. “Simon dedicated his life to his mission of ‘peace through music’ and has uplifted children around the globe, particularly in Africa. During his many decades of international travel, he never forgot his Iowa roots and focused several of his humanitarian efforts right here in Iowa.”
Born during the Depression in Centerville, a small coal mining town in southern Iowa, as the grandson of a man enslaved and sold for $500 and the son of a father who could neither read nor write, Mr. Estes began his life-long musical journey as a very young boy singing at the Second Baptist Church.
Reflecting the determination instilled in him by his mother and father and their family's belief in the uplifting power of music and education, he gained admittance to the University of Iowa in 1957. There, he broke the first of many color barriers and became the first African American member of the Old Gold Singers, the university's premier vocal ensemble.
Mr. Estes' career would go on to span six decades that included performances in 23 countries on six continents with 84 opera houses and 115 symphony orchestras. He continued to break barriers at home and abroad, including as the first Black man to sing in Bayreuth, Germany, where he performed the lead role in the Flying Dutchman in 1978.
He has focused his efforts on uplifting and elevating the voices of youth, particularly the suffering of young Africans affected by poverty and malaria. By using his voice he raised $532,000 for the United Nations Foundation “Nothing But Nets” campaign to support the distribution of free malaria nets, helping to save over 100,000 children five years old and younger.
“Governor Robert D. Ray, in honor of whom this award was created, was one of the greatest humanitarians I have ever met with the greatest character,” said Mr. Estes. “To be even considered for this award, especially for my humanitarian efforts involving saving the lives of thousands of children, is especially special to me. We are human beings who were put on this earth to serve one another, to be humble. I am so honored and humbled to receive this spectacular award.”
In 2010, he demonstrated his dual commitment to music and humanitarian causes at the World Cup Grand Finale Concert in Johannesburg. Introducing his original composition "Save the Children, Save Their Lives" to thousands in attendance, Mr. Estes highlighted his dedication to combating childhood malaria in Africa and to inspiring youth through institutions he established, including:
- The Simon Estes Music High School near Cape Town, South Africa;
- The Simon Estes International Foundation for Children in Switzerland;
- The Simon Estes Foundation in Iowa; and
- The Simon Estes Educational Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, through which he has helped raise over $3 million and support 428 students from all over the world with scholarships in multidisciplinary studies.
As part of his operatic odyssey, Mr. Estes’ selfless efforts have led to his receiving an array of exceptional honors and recognition for his accomplishments, including:
- The Iowa Award by Governor Terry Branstad, our state's highest citizen recognition in 1996;
- An exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National African American Museum of History and Culture; and
- 13 Honorary Doctorate Degrees including a recent one from his alma mater Juilliard School of Music in New York City.