Prominent Alumnus Dies at His Home in Africa
Aug 16, 2010The Rev. J. David Simonson, legendary Lutheran missionary in East Africa, died Monday, Aug. 16, at his home in Arusha, Tanzania. A 1951 graduate of Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., Simonson spent his entire four-decade career working among the Maasai tribe in Africa.
“David Simonson was a man of uncommon capacity and purpose,” says Concordia College Interim President Paul Dovre, “His sense of vocation was unwavering as was his commitment to the Massai to whom he devoted his ministry. In every way he exemplified the mission of Concordia and the vows of his ordination. The college is grateful for his witness and the many years of partnership we were able to share with him. May his legacy live on in the lives of all of us.”
The son of a Lutheran pastor, Simonson was born Nov. 2, 1929 to the Rev. Rudolph and Gladys Simonson and grew up at Scobey, Mont., and Sisseton, S.D., where he learned lessons of service to those caught in injustice from his Sioux Indian playmates. He enrolled at Concordia in 1947 intending to pursue medicine. He was a fullback and linebacker on the football team, serving as captain his senior season. In college he met Eunice Nordby of Portland, N.D., a pastor’s daughter, and together they planned to answer a mutual call to mission work in Africa. The two were married on June 14, 1951. They went to then-Tanganyika in February 1956, following his graduation from Luther Seminary and her graduation from Fairview Hospital School of Nursing in Minneapolis. David Simonson became an evangelist and Eunice Simonson a registered nurse. Together they transformed the lives of literally hundreds of thousands in East Africa through compassionate health care, education and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Simonson believed mission work meant spreading the gospel in unison with doing some form of social service work, such as building schools, churches, hospitals and clinics, that could not be separated from evangelism. To accomplish his social service work, Simonson founded Operation Bootstrap Africa in 1965 to raise funds in order to build primary schools, rural churches, several medical clinics, a hospital and his crowning achievement, the MaaSae Girls Lutheran Secondary School.
Near the end of his mission term in 1993, Simonson presided over mass baptisms of Maasai, as many as 3,000 in a single weekend. The Arusha Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania asked Simonson to remain in Africa after retirement to complete his dream of building and operating a pioneering secondary school for Maasai women. Simonson said the idea of operating a school for women appealed to him because it was mission work in its purest form —the church would educate Maasai women, and they in turn would educate their families and villages.
Simonson’s dream became a reality and The MaaSae Girls Lutheran Secondary School graduated its first class in 2002. For several years, Simonson arranged for two graduates of the school each year to attend Concordia College in order to learn enhanced skills for helping their people. Simonson’s greatest work was helping the long-neglected Maasai understand the value of education as the best vehicle for self-preservation and betterment in modern-day Africa.
Simonson’s missionary career was chronicled in a book, “The Cross Under the Acacia Tree,” by former Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar, who wrote, “Simonson couldn’t get up early enough each morning to work among the Maasai, who seemed drawn to the big and broad, black-bearded man. He quickly came to see that if he was to be accepted as a preacher on Sunday, he had to be a problem-solver Monday through Saturday.” Simonson’s conviction to serve never wavered and his family made their permanent home in Arusha on property overlooking Mount Meru given to them by the Maasai tribe. The Simonsons also maintained a home in Fergus Falls, Minn.
Concordia College awarded Simonson the Alumni Achievement Award in 1970. In 2004, the Luther Institute recognized the Simonsons’ mission work with its highest honor, the Wittenberg Award. Simonson is credited as the force behind raising more than $7 million through Operation Bootstrap Africa for school and church construction and aid work in East Africa.
Simonson is survived by his wife, Eunice; sons, Stephen (Marilyn), Nathan (Susan) and Jonathan (Annette) all of Arusha, Tanzania; daughters, Naomi, Fergus Falls, and Rebecca (Jim Weinreis) of Beach, N.D.; 15 grandchildren; and two brothers, Luther and James Simonson. His parents and one brother, R. Paul Simonson, preceded him in death.
Services will be held at the Ilboru Lutheran Church, with a memorial service later at the Arusha Community Church, both in Arusha.