In Chelsea, a Life Worth Hearing About

Simon Walters in an undated family photograph.

Simon Walters in an undated family photograph.

Chelsea — In one of the last photographs taken of him, Simon Walters is squinting in front of a boat and clutching a cup of flowers, ready for his mother’s wedding.

Walters, 25, had a love for life and learning, friends and family say. He enjoyed motorbikes and four-wheelers, working on cars and playing video games, saving money and the company of nieces and nephews.

He was like many young people his age, taking steps to establish his independence: he had a job, and was living on his own.

Walters did all that even though he never fully heard the sounds of the world, or his family’s voices, never heard music, or laughter — yet he is remembered for his love of cracking jokes.

That’s because Walters had been diagnosed as deaf when he was 18 months old. But he refused to let that define him, family members said.

“He was a unique individual,” said Renada Walters, Simon’s oldest sister. “He just had this energy about him that was positive. He would help anybody and had a desire to live 100 percent of his life.”

Early Sunday morning, a few minutes after midnight, Simon Walters died due to complications from cardiac arrest when his 1998 Subaru crashed into the bridge wall at the Strafford Road and Route 110 intersection, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Vermont troopers, who responded to a neighbor’s 911 call on Sunday, are still investigating the circumstances surrounding Walters’ fatal crash, said Sheriff Bill Bohnyak, who declined yesterday afternoon to give more details on the crash pending autopsy and toxicology test results.

“Once we have those, we’ll finalize the investigation,” Bohnyak said.

But for close friends, former employers and family members, the first half of this week has been a time to reflect upon the life of a young man who lived in a world that struggled to understand him.

Penny Walters, Simon’s mother, first noticed her son was deaf a few months after his first birthday.

“I would talk to him and he wouldn’t respond,” she said. “It didn’t seem like he was ignoring me, so that’s when I thought he might not be able to hear me.”

Penny Walters started expressing her concern to friends, but “they all thought I was hallucinating,” she said.

After a doctor’s appointment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, her fears were confirmed: Simon was deaf in both ears.

“There was never any reason why,” she said. “The doctors couldn’t really explain it.”

But instead of despairing, Penny Walters learned sign language at a program in Williamstown, and made sure her three other children — Renada, the first born; Steven, the second-oldest; and Brittany, the youngest child in the family — learned it too so they could communicate with their brother.

Simon learned to sign around 3 years old, and then began preschool at Austine School for The Deaf in Brattleboro two years later.

During that time he was just like any other student — he played basketball, joined the swim team and developed a fondness for skiing and snowboarding.

“He tried it all,” Penny Walters said.

When Simon Walters was a junior at Austine, he went on a school trip to Europe. The class visited Italy and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Penny Walters said the trip cost the family about $5,000, but was “worth every dime.” She sent her son with two disposable cameras and $500 in spending money. “Get me a gift,” she said. Simon returned with 11 cameras and a lighter from a Leaning Tower of Pisa gift shop.

“That’s all you got for me?” she asked her son, laughing. “That’s OK. I’m glad you went.”

Although Austine was a better environment for Simon because he spent his time with other deaf children, it was more than hour away from the family’s home in Chelsea.

Renada Walters said they saw less of Simon during the school year since he was usually only home on weekends. She remembers riding with her mother to Randolph to drop off Simon at the bus stop on Monday mornings. He would return on Friday afternoons, every week, every year, until he graduated in 2006.

His absence was something the family had to adapt to, said sister Brittany Walters. In hindsight, it’s time they wish they could have back.

“I kind of wish now that he didn’t have to go to school so far away,” Bittany Walters said.

But within the Chelsea community, most people didn’t know sign language.

“And that made it tough on Simon,” Renada Walters said. “He really struggled and felt discouraged sometimes.”

Brittany Walters said her brother always had a smile on his face, but whenever he grew upset or felt that he couldn’t properly communicate with people, it would disappear. His face would fall flat underneath his curly blonde hair and big ears.

Despite the challenges, he was pretty patient, she said, and would resort to a notepad to have conversations with people.

Landing a job was also difficult for Simon.

“People didn’t want to take a chance on Simon because he was deaf,” Renada Walters said.

He was finally hired about two years ago by Progressive Plastics, a company in Williamstown that makes molds.

During the job interview, Renada Walters helped translate for her brother, and Simon went on to become one of the company’s hardest-working employees, said his boss Bob Carpenter, vice president of operations.

“I could tell he was going to be motivated,” Carpenter said. “Even with his disability, he wanted to be able to work alongside other people. He wanted to be part of society. He’s going to be greatly missed.”

Steven Walters, Simon’s brother, said Simon brought light to the most ordinary situations. Over time, Simon learned how to read lips, and could understand most conversations.

“He could laugh at anything,” Steven Walters said. “Some of the dumbest commercials on TV, silly jokes, anything.”

Penny Walters said as all her children grew up and made their own lives, they didn’t have as much time to spend with Simon. Her recent wedding was the last time many of them saw their brother. Steven Walters said Simon’s last words to him are the most special.

At the reception, two weekends ago, Simon signed “I love you.” “That’s going to stay close to my heart,” Steven Walters said.

Simon was always loving, even as a young boy. Penny Walters said she raised her four children alone, on a small salary that sometimes forced her to choose between paying the electric bill or putting food on the table.

“I would get panicked, or anxious,” she said, “and Simon would always hug and sign to me: ‘It’s going to be OK’ and ‘I love you.’ ”

Zack Peterson can be reached at 603-727-3211 or zpeterson@vnews.com.