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Arnold Simonsen remembered as a gentle giant with big heart

The Longboat resident who donated millions to various Sarasota organizations died at age 88.

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  • | 2:12 p.m. June 18, 2019
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Being present and having a presence. 

That’s what friends and colleagues remember when they think of Arnold Simonsen. 

They think of a man who cared deeply for Sarasota’s area youth and homeless. They recall a man big in stature and even bigger in heart.They remember a man who would sit in the back of every event, choosing to leave the limelight for someone else. 

“Arnold was a one-of-a-kind,” said Suzy Brenner, executive director of the Longboat Key Paradise Center for Healthy Living. “He was funny and smart and always brutally honest with you. He loved to see his generous donations really make a difference.” 

Simonsen, a Longboat resident, died Tuesday, June 11. He was 88. 

Simonsen was a self-made man, starting his own tree nursery in Illinois. After seeing success, Simonsen sold his business and began investing funds in nursing homes. 

After moving to Longboat Key, Simonsen became a philanthropic force in the Sarasota community, donating millions to several organizations over the last 17 years. 

In January 2016, The Players Centre for Performing Arts opened the Arnold Simonsen Players Studio, enabling training for more than 300 children. 

The Players Artistic Director Jeffery Kin remembers the studio’s ribbon-cutting well. The kids changed the words to “We Love You, Conrad” from the musical “Bye, Bye, Birdie” to “We Love You, Arnold.” 

“I literally believe that he teared up,” Kin said. “It really made a difference to have him surrounded by all our kids, and they’re singing to him and saying thank you to him, and he was emotional.”

In November of 2016, Simonsen donated $2.5 million to Salvation Army Sarasota to help fund its QLife Initiative, which allowed those experiencing homelessness to plan out their next steps in the order they want. 

“It’s hard to describe a man like Arnold,” said Glenda Leonard, development director of Salvation Army Sarasota. “Here’s this big, lumbering, huge man but yet he had such a compassionate heart for the homeless. 

“His desire to help the homeless, his compassion for that, was just overwhelming to us, and his generosity to help those who were experiencing homelessness was just outstanding.”

But Simonsen’s donations didn’t stop there. In October 2017, Florida Studio Theater dedicated the Arnold Simonsen and Rhonda Montminy Theatre Wing, thanks to a $1 million donation. 

The donation bought FST a new costume shop, which kept the theater from conducting a fundraising campaign. His “commanding presence and booming voice” will be missed, said FST producing artistic director Richard Hopkins. 

“He enjoyed the arts like a ‘regular Joe,’” Hopkins said. “When you first met Arnold, you didn’t think of him as an arts supporter, but he liked theatre. He truly enjoyed it, and he understood it.” 

Simonsen additionally donated funds to Sarasota Opera, American Cancer Society, Alzheimer’s Association, the Longboat Island Chapel and Longboat Key’s Paradise Center for Healthy Living. 

But his generosity stretched far beyond his philanthropic efforts, said Richard Pelton, a friend of Simonsen's for the past 15 years. 

"He taught me to be more generous than you think you can be both with your wallet and with your mouth," Pelton said. 

Pelton recalled a fundraiser at he and Simonsen's church, Longboat Island Chapel, that wasn't going too well. However, Simonsen had his eye on a carrot cake, one of his favorites. 

"All of the sudden the carrot cake went up for auction and he said, ‘I’ll buy it for $500,’" Pelton said. "This auction was making precious little money, but he wanted to show his support, and I just thought that was incredible."  

Simonsen is survived by his companion Rhonda Montminy, and four daughters Sharon Brennan, Judy Pollin, Joann Mercer and Susan Simonsen.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be made in Simonsen’s name to any of the organizations he supported.