Ronnie Simonsen; shared his joy in a special life; at 55

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / December 24, 2010

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Tonight at Triumphant Cross Lutheran Church in Salem, N.H., parishioners will listen with their hearts, rather than their ears, to hear Ronnie Simonsen perform “O Holy Night,’’ which he always made his own by ad-libbing a line or verse that flitted from his memory.

“This will be the first year in many he won’t be singing,’’ the Rev. David Yasenka, the church’s pastor, said of Mr. Simonsen, who died in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Dec. 15 of complications of leukemia. “I think what we’ll do this year is have it played, but no one will sing it. We’ll let everyone hear in their minds Ronnie singing, with it just being played in the background.’’

His charm and intensity heightened by developmental and physical disabilities, Mr. Simonsen might have insisted he will still sing at tonight’s Christmas Eve service, if only from afar, and he would have persuaded everyone to believe him.

He believed simply and purely in God and heaven and the supremacy of his favorite television actors, none more so than 1970s heartthrob Chad Everett, who starred in “Medical Center.’’ With joyful exuberance, Mr. Simonsen converted many a nonbeliever to those passions in his 55 years.

“All of us who knew him are so blessed, because through all of his challenges came this wonderfully bright shining soul, wonderfully positive,’’ said Everett, who had met Mr. Simonsen and called him regularly when he was being treated for leukemia. “I mean, he just did not have a negative bone in his body. I never had a conversation with him on the phone that did not end in prayer. He loved to pray.’’

Mr. Simonsen believed that believing was enough to make things come true, and for him that was the case as he met celebrity after celebrity. He became an actor himself, improvising scenes on stage with Patricia Neal and appearing in short films with stars from his favorite soap operas.

“Ronnie wouldn’t let his life not be fun; he enjoyed every little thing,’’ said his mother, Ellen Karrfalt, with whom he lived in Pelham, N.H. “He really did teach me that.’’

Life taught Mr. Simonsen harsh lessons, and he emerged, as one hospital chaplain told his family, “truly an ambassador for Jesus.’’

Born with cerebral palsy, Mr. Simonsen endured surgeries as a boy that let him walk, albeit with an ungainly gait. His mind remained rooted in childhood, however, so he lumbered through a life in which dreams were always within reach.

“Ronnie’s dreams were so infectious and all-encompassing you had to become part of them and help him achieve those dreams,’’ said his stepsister Kim Ho of Sudbury. “To Ronnie, you don’t just go through your life, you find your dream and you achieve your dream.’’

Mr. Simonsen didn’t wait to meet famous people. He walked up and said hello.

Traveling each summer to Camp Jabberwocky, which welcomes those with disabilities to Martha’s Vineyard, he introduced himself to Jackie Onassis and snagged a few on-camera minutes with Walter Cronkite simply by asking for an interview, which is now on YouTube. And he did not hesitate to ask the retired CBS anchorman to do his signature closing from the evening news.

Featured in short films such as “The Return of the Muskrats’’ in 2006, Mr. Simonsen was one of the stars of Arthur Bradford’s 1999 documentary “How’s Your News?’’ A hit in festivals, the film showed people with disabilities interviewing random Americans in a cross-country road trip. On the festival circuit with the film, Mr. Simonsen sang a song in Amsterdam with former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

It was at Camp Jabberwocky, though, that Mr. Simonsen discovered his gift for performance, first by delivering sermons. His admiration for actors and doctors was rivaled only by his affection for clergy of any cloth.

The camp began putting on plays, often with music, at the end of each session, and “Ronnie became a star because he was just a wonderful singer,’’ said Gillian Butchman, the camp’s former director. At “Friday night live’’ gatherings when counselors and campers put on skits, Neal sometimes joined Mr. Simonsen on stage to improvise scenes.

“The other thing about Ronnie that is unforgettable is his family,’’ Butchman said. “They are so remarkable. Ronnie had a charming, lovely life that he and everyone who knew him loved, but without his parents, that wouldn’t have happened.’’

Those who never met Mr. Simonsen might look at his life and think it magical. Along with meeting enough television actors to fill an address book, he traveled nationally and internationally.

“But if you knew Ron, the question would be, ‘How could it not happen?’ It’s just a matter of time before the stars align and everything he’s talking about happens,’’ said Will Halby, who, with his brother, runs a camp in Lincoln, Vt., and puts together movie projects that involve people with and without disabilities.

“He also loved getting to know who you were as a person,’’ said Halby’s brother, Peter. “He knew family members I had and would ask how they were doing. He wanted to talk about celebrities, but he would come back to, ‘How’s your mom doing?’ ’’

Indeed, Mr. Simonsen was a bit of a savant when it came to names, faces, and “Medical Center,’’ the drama that was Everett’s professional home in the 1970s.

“I did 174 ‘Medical Centers,’ ’’ Everett said. “Ronnie knew every single one, who the guest stars were. I don’t know that. I can’t even come close.’’

That is not to say that Mr. Simonsen’s focus and reach were limited to celebrities. In online condolences, one Boston woman wrote: “I am the mother of a 3-year-old girl with a disability. I didn’t know Ron personally but watched him on ‘How’s Your News.’ I had to write to tell you how Ron made me laugh and cry and gave me so much hope for our own daughter’s future.’’

A service was held Sunday for Mr. Simonsen, who, in addition to his mother and stepsister, leaves his stepfather, Jake Karrfalt of Pelham, N.H.; a sister, Judy Ferreira of Marion; and three stepbrothers, Brad and Darrell Karrfalt of Hollywood, Calif., and Wayne Karrfalt of Seattle.

Everett called Mr. Simonsen a natural actor. They met a few times, and their first encounter was recorded in a video, now on YouTube, that captures the two improvising a scene.

“I will miss him, but . . . I’m overjoyed that he’s walking and talking unencumbered now,’’ said Everett. “Like his mom said, there are no crutches and wheelchairs in heaven. I think Ronnie came as a teacher, and he taught way more than he learned.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at