Dearest Family and Friends,
It is with heavy, but relieved, hearts that we tell you our beloved Ron, age 78, transitioned peacefully and joyfully from our home into God’s arms on March 14, 2021, due to complications of Alzheimer’s disease. How appropriate that he took his last breath on a Sunday evening, the Lord’s Day. While those of us who are left behind will always feel a deep and compellingly tender void, we are grateful beyond measure for the blessing of Ron in all of our lives.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord
And has made the Lord their hope and confidence.
He is like a tree planted along a riverbank
That sends out its roots, reaching deep into the water.
Such trees are not bothered when heat comes
Or anxious by the long months of drought,
Because their leaves stay green
And they will never cease to bear fruit.
Jeremiah 12: 7-8
This is the verse embossed on the front cover of Ron’s bible. A Bible he regularly read, referenced for wisdom, and so frequently found solace in. Above all, Ron was a devout and practicing Christian his entire life; his deep and abiding faith defined the foundation of his character and the navigation behind the purposes with which he aligned. His core Christian values informed his principles and guided his priorities with his family, friends, colleagues, and in the many communities in which he served, in a profoundly positive manner. Ron was the quintessential example of a person who endured unimaginable hardships in his life, but whose abundant strength and resiliency directly came from his abundant trust in God.
Born as a fraternal twin (his beloved brother, Robert [“Bob” who is all of 4 minutes older], wife Joann [born 1943], son Jay [born 1966], his wife Laurie [born 1968], and son David [1969-1991]), Ron and Bob were raised in Minnesota by two wonderful parents, Verdell (1916-2006) and Ernst (1908-1945). Their family was the epitome of a lovingly devoted, Christ-centered unit until tragedy struck and Ernst was killed in a traffic accident when the boys were only two years old. For the next two decades, Verdell, herself a woman of amazing fortitude and deep faith, did her best to raise and educate her sons, but the family faced financial, relational, and circumstantial insecurities resulting in many difficult and traumatic hardships for the trio.
Despite the odds, both Ron and Bob developed into stellar young men, graduating from the University of Minnesota (classes of 1966 and 1965), going on to receive graduate degrees at the University of Southern California, (Ron with a Doctorate in Educational Leadership [Ed.D] in 1990, Bob with an MBA in1972). Armed with these first-rate educations and their well-honed grit and work ethic, both launched into long professional leadership careers, with Ron choosing 40 years in public service as an educator, beginning as a classroom teacher, and spending the last 20 years as Assistant Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent and, ultimately, Superintendent in five progressively larger school districts. Ron’s leadership across the decades could best be characterized by his razor-sharp visionary abilities, innovative trouble-shooting capacity, excellent interpersonal skills, respectful collaborative spirit, keen sense of humor wrapped around his gregarious nature, and enormous heart for marginalized, underserved, and struggling students.
In his personal life, Ron was first married to Sandra (1946-1979) for 13 years and together they were blessed with a truly bright, engaging, and radiant little boy, Jeffrey (1974-1979). Tragedy struck again, in a particularly premature and cruel way, when Sandy succumbed to a three-year breast cancer battle and Jeff was struck and killed by a vehicle later the same year. In a matter of months, at age 36, Ron was widowed and buried his only child. Many of you, our dear Fountain Valley neighbors at the time, carried Ron through this impossibly challenging time.
The depth and width of Ron’s grief was only able to be navigated by the conviction and peace found in his faith. Those early and profound losses allowed Ron to walk in the shoes of hundreds of grief-stricken people with whom he interfaced throughout the next decades and then brought Ron to his post-retirement volunteer role, serving as Saddleback Church’s Grief Ministry Director for 12 years, prior to stepping down when his Alzheimer’s advanced in 2019.
In 2016, while serving in that leadership role, Ron was beyond humbled to be given “The Giant Killer Leadership Award,” with these words written on the bottom:
“This award is given by Saddleback Church to an outstanding member who has shown courageous leadership in problem-solving and serving the needs of others. The winner is selected from a pool of over 25,000 volunteers who serve in over 500 community ministries. The title of the award refers to the Bible story of how David showed courage in standing up to the giant Goliath in battle from 1 Samuel 17.”
Of all the generous commendations Ron has received in his many roles, this was likely the most meaningful one, simply because it reflects his own indomitable “comeback” spirit and the way in which he continuously encouraged others to press on, no matter the circumstances.
When Ron was 38, he and I married and God was gracious to give us a second chance at creating a family. The births of Brandon (born 1983, wife Maureen [born 1984]) and Lauren (1987, husband Jay [born 1983]) were, and continue to be, the greatest blessings we have experienced in our 40 years of marriage. With the arrival of our children, our family was fortunate to expand to include our dear Weinnie, who started as the children’s nanny and was quickly “promoted” to their Godmother and lifelong honorary family member. Twelve years ago, we were further blessed by the addition of our precious “adopted” granddaughter, Madeline Tourtlotte, who is now a beautiful, brilliant higher schooler, with her eye on entering college as a pre-med major. Her parents, Stacey Henning and Dave Tourtlotte, are among our many dear “chosen family” members through Saddleback Church’s Small Group Bible Study program, with whom we have formed deep and abiding relationships throughout our 25 years of church membership. Together, with other dear small group members like the Wheelers and the Corsos, we have banded together through life’s adventures and challenges.
Ron is, and will always be, the love of my life. Because he was a young widower, many of you know our unconventional love story, but suffice it to say, when you fully take in the extraordinary qualities of this man, I could not have been more fortunate to marry him. Audrey Hepburn once said, “The best thing to hold onto in life is each other”… and that is what Ron and I did in building a faithful marriage and loving family. From our impoverished childhood backgrounds, Ron and I were so grateful to build a “more than we could have dreamed for future” together. I am so incredibly humbled to have been Ron’s second life partner; he has truly given me “the time of my life.”
Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl wrote, “happiness cannot be attained by wanting to be happy, but rather, by having it come as an unintended consequence of working for a goal greater than oneself.” Our family has been so blessed to be both recipients and witnesses of Ron’s loving, sacrificial, and completely other-centered, servant devotion to all those in his sight, regardless of their story, station, or status. Truly, I have never known anyone as selfless, genuine, humble, and trustworthy as Ron Bennett.
I have said on more than one occasion that capturing the essence of Ron, both professionally and personally, boils down to the three Rs:
Foremost, there was the “Reverend Ron.” The man who was always so crystallized in his values, visionary in his directives, and respectful toward the opinions of others, that the projection of his leadership was clear and unassailable.
Second, there was the “Resilient Ron.” The man who exuded optimism, reached down deep for strength, sparked the most creative and ingenious resolutions, and, hands down, had the God-inspired ability to negotiate the most challenging of adversities, while we all stood in awe and watched.
Third, there was the “Rock and Roll Ron.” From his endearing humor to his mischievous and legendary pranks. From his numerous artistic, construction, and athletic talents to his love of adventure and calculated (or not) risk-taking. Ron never backed down from a good-natured challenge and was always the first one to buy the celebratory round of drinks, regardless of what side he was on.
So here’s the take-away…everyone started out gravitating to “Rock and Roll Ron,” but all grew to be life-long friends and colleagues because they came to deeply admire the first two “Rs” in the equation.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the way in which Ron faced this last difficult chapter of his remarkable life. When he was given his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in April 2013, many of you received this letter:
We just received the news that I have Alzheimer’s Disease. While not entirely surprised by this diagnosis due to my family history, we were not prepared for the gravity of the test findings, since I just turned 70. As you know there is no current cure, but we are hopeful that the state of science, combined with receiving excellent medical care through the Hoag Neuroscience Department, will be on our side. To that end, I have already begun the full treatment protocol they recommend and am hopeful of qualifying for particularly promising clinical trials in the near future.
There are two requests I have at this time. First, keep me and our family in prayer as we all walk through the disease process together. We have had a wonderful 32-year marriage together, but I am especially saddened that our children, still in their 20’s, have to bear the weight of this diagnosis. For all the hardships I have endured in my life, having the love, devotion, and support of a loving family has been, and continues to be, my greatest blessing.
Second, please do not treat me differently…yes, while I have a neurodegenerative brain disease that will likely interfere with staying “in relationship” with each of you for as long as I would like, I would ask that for as long as possible, you allow me to just be your caring and fun-loving friend. My friendships with all of you have been the second most meaningful blessing in my lifetime and so I look forward to savoring them for whatever time remains to do so.
With All Affection and Appreciation-Ron
Ron, always a man of his word, was the most scientifically sophisticated and courageous person I have ever known with this diagnosis. Within six months of diagnosis, we were in our first clinical trial, one that ended up being a true game-changer, giving us an extra four years of very high-quality time. We were in three subsequent trials and on numerous experimental protocols, underscoring his courage to advance the science for others, even if “the cure” would not be within our grasp. And, true to character, in one final act of selfless service, Ron arranged for his brain to be harvested and donated to the National Cell Repository for Alzheimer’s Disease (NCRAD). As I write this, his brain has arrived at Columbia University’s Division of Hereditary Genomics Research Lab in New York City. He so hoped this last selfless act would further guide successful Alzheimer’s treatment for others. Having lost generations of his relatives to this disease, Ron’s strong desire was that his journey and his end point would influence advancing science so that, eventually, other families would not have to endure the gradual cognitive loss of those dearest to them.
As such, should you wish to memorialize your relationship with Ron, he would be so humbled and honored to direct any donations made in his memory to Cure Alzheimer’s Fund (link below). In our research, Ron and I found Cure Alzheimer’s Fund to be the most financially accountable, non-profit organization dedicated to funding the research with the highest probability of preventing, slowing, and/or reversing Alzheimer’s disease. And, due to our deep respect for the safety of all in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our immediate family will be laying Ron to rest privately, with a few great glasses of scotch in hand.
As you all know, one rarely travels these final roads alone. Not only do Ron and I have tremendous gratitude to each of you, our loving family, and dearest friends, but there is one standout individual, Mr. Larry Reyes, who signed on to be Ron’s “personal assistant” in what would become his final year of life. During his tenure, Larry was a giant among men, tending to Ron’s every need with such understanding, support, grace, and camaraderie that he become family along the way.
Larry’s devoted care, combined with the compassionate leadership of Kevitt Sale, General Manager, and Rick Booth, Director of Golf at Coto de Caza’s Golf & Racquet Club, allowed Ron to “stay on the links” until he entered hospice just recently. Ron didn’t just enjoy golf, he deeply cherished every aspect of this game, which he played for 70 years. There is no moment that better illustrates his passion for the game than when Ron qualified for the Coto Club Team, going to the Pinehurst National Championship in 2000. They finished first, the only Coto team, either before or after, to bring home the coveted “Putter Boy” to their beloved Coto clubhouse. The Coto Golf Club motto is “Warm Welcomes, Magical Moments, and Fond Farewells,” which was well-lived and embraced by Ron during his 27 years of membership. Bless every employee who served him so well over nearly three decades.
While on the subject of gratitude, a circle of world-class medical angels encircled us during Ron’s final days. Among them, Jesus Valadez, M.D., Ihab Soliman, M.D., Jeffrey Felgner, M.D., and Hospice Nurse Extraordinaire, Yumi Nakazawa, each providing us with the highest level of medical expertise and compassion so desperately needed by our family during this time. You are our heroes and we will always, always be in your debt.
In closing, Ron used to always say “if there is a glimpse of heaven on this earth, it is the relationships we are privileged to share”. He truly meant that and often reminded Brandon and Lauren that life is all about the relationships you foster and how you show up in those relationships. We want you to know Ron was so deeply grateful to have cherished each of you, as dear family and friends. As many of you may have experienced, he always showed up, both to celebrate the good times and make the challenging times a bit lighter by shouldering the burden together. Please also know, until the last moment he was able, Ron was thinking of all of you and praying for your families, your circumstances, and your needs.
To everyone reading this, thank you, beyond measure, for all your support over the years and for holding us close in thought and prayer during this time. As we have spent recent time processing and celebrating the life of our beloved husband and father, a dear friend remarked that Ron has likely already presented God with the following for His consideration: 1) a list of Heavenly Home Improvement projects, 2) potential upgrades for the Heavenly Links Golf Course, 3) a revised in-service training program for the New Angel Recruits, and 4) a bid to spearhead Heaven’s Scotch Tasting Committee.
We also know Ron will be hosting the welcome party when each of us makes it to the other side.
With deep appreciation,
Linda… for the entire Bennett Family