Blinded by a wreck, former Mecklenburg deputy builds from memory

jmarusak@charlotteobserver.comDecember 27, 2013 

— When Ronnie Presnell’s 6-year-old granddaughter asked him to build her a playhouse, the former dirt-track champion and Mecklenburg County sheriff’s deputy went right to work.

In the workshop outside his home in Mooresville at Lake Norman, Presnell, 64, labored on the house for nine months.

Blind since a delivery truck crossed a center line and slammed into his pickup in Charlotte in May 1998, Presnell pictured the house in his mind.

“It’s like having a photographic memory,” said Presnell, who has built everything from birdhouses to high-performance racing and boat engines since the wreck. He restores classic cars, just like he did when he could see.

“I wake up thinking I’m going to see sunshine, but it’s always dark,” the native Charlottean said. “So I try to stay as busy as I can.”

In 2011, he fulfilled a longtime dream by zooming around the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway. NASCAR driver Kenny Wallace sat in the front passenger seat, guiding and cheering him on.

His latest venture was for 33-year-old daughter Brenda Sessoms’ children: Dakota, 10, Cheyenne, 6, and Hunter, 4. The Presnells’ other daughter is Tammy, 34.

Cheyenne saw a playhouse at a local lumber company and asked, “PawPaw, would you build me a playhouse?” Presnell said. “I need an upstairs so I can put my baby dolls to bed.”

“He likes to build stuff, fix stuff,” Cheyenne said on a recent tour of the playhouse.

The finished product is a shingle-roofed, 10-by-10-foot, two-level structure with sand-beige vinyl siding, and paneling on the ceiling and a wall.

The sand-beige color matches that of the home he shares with his wife, Reita, off Old Mountain and Lewis Ferry roads in western Iredell County.

He added plexiglass windows as a safety measure, including one for a pretend drive-thru McDonald’s, where Cheyenne takes customer orders and handles pretend payments. Presnell caulked the windows to make them waterproof.

He said the front of the house is a pretend bank with a teller window. Dakota and Hunter also like to shoot a toy wood gun out the plexiglass window on the second level at deer and squirrels.

Safety in mind

Presnell used a router to smooth edges of the wood inside and outside the playhouse, so the children avoid splinters. Even the two white wood poles on either side of the front entrance to the house are smooth from top to bottom.

The inside of the house is 5 feet// by 8 feet, plus the 3-foot porch that Presnell leveled with cinder blocks.

The 10 steps that lead from the first to second level inside are close together “so the kids won’t fall,” Presnell said. He laid carpet on both floors.

Brenda Sessoms said her dad built a playhouse for her and her sister when they were girls; it’s still outside the Presnells’ home in Mooresville.

“He just amazes me,” Brenda Sessoms said. “But he’s always worked with his hands and never let his vision loss stop him one bit.”

Revived three times

Presnell was on his way to the bank on a lunch break from his job in the Sheriff’s Office courts division when the truck hit him.

Emergency workers had to revive him three times.

“Did you know you died?” he said a doctor asked him in the hospital.

“Yeah,” Presnell said he replied. “The devil ran me off. Caught me messin’ with a thermostat. I wanted to cool it down down there.”

He spent six weeks in a coma. He suffered a broken leg, five broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, broken jaw and cheeks, a broken nose and an aneurysm. Surgeons used a photo to reconstruct his face, and the 6-foot-1 Presnell dropped to 110 pounds from his usual 160.

He had to learn to walk again, the former Metrolina Speedway champion said. He had to learn to eat again.

But he found he could still build the engines he did before he lost his sight. He’d built, repaired and driven race cars for decades. He also drove hot rods and drag-raced.

For his next project, Presnell said he will build a high-performance engine for a “jet boat” on which he’ll have friends take him out on Lake Norman.

“I love to get out on the lake, cruise around and listen to the engine rumble,” he said.

Marusak: 704-358-5067; Twitter: @jmarusak

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service