Without any notes or prompting, Steve Ramirez can still launch into the origin story for Ronald McDonald House Charities, how then-Philadelphia Eagles General Manager Jim Murray offered a six-figure check on behalf of the team to a local children’s hospital after the daughter of one of his players became terminally ill in 1969.
It’s a story Ramirez, who grew up in Sacramento and lives in Elk Grove, told countless times while serving as board chairman for the global charity that offers places to stay for families of hospitalized children and has 5,200 employees and half a million volunteers.
But it’s also a story Ramirez is now telling as chairman emeritus, having stepped down after six years as chairman for health reasons in December 2020. Ginger Hardage, a retired senior vice president for Southwest Airlines, replaced Ramirez as board chairman, although Ramirez is free to continue attending board meetings and help the charity in various capacities. Regardless, he’s still getting used to the next chapter of his life.
“I have been very close to the charity,” Ramirez says. “I don’t think I’ve actually left the charity. But I’ve turned the reins over to someone else, and it just feels strange. I’m having some trouble adjusting.”
For more than three decades, the charity and the McDonald’s Corporation helped to define Ramirez, who became a franchisee in Galt in 1988. He later operated several other franchises, including four in Elk Grove and three in Modesto, before selling the last of them in 2017. He became involved with Ronald McDonald House Charities about 17 years ago, and was named chairman in 2015.
Ramirez’s friend of 10 years, Sacramento Builders Exchange President Tim Murphy, saw the level of heart and dedication Ramirez put into his work, as well as his extraordinary acumen for fundraising, a key part of nonprofit work. “He’s put himself out there so much, and it’s really easy to see how dear that organization is to his heart with the work that he’s done,” says Murphy, a member of Comstock’s Editorial Advisory Board.
While making a difference as chairman, Ramirez also has been dealing for more than a decade with peripheral neuropathy, a condition that causes nerves in his feet to die. He uses a cane today and has been advised to also use a walker. “The last few years, it became such a chore to walk, for me to walk, a block and I’d be perspiring like I’d just ran three miles,” Ramirez says.
This presented challenges in running the charity, which operates in 64 countries and required Ramirez to travel extensively. Murphy saw the toll firsthand, watching Ramirez be pushed in a wheelchair through the airport three years ago during a trip to Chicago. “It wasn’t dousing the flames of his passion for doing what he was doing,” Murphy says of Ramirez’s diagnosis. “It just made it more difficult for him to do it. But he was persisting.”
Ramirez finally stepped away from the board after concluding “it was time for somebody younger and stronger to take over.” Now comes the next stage for Ramirez, though he’s still figuring out what that means. He and his wife of 42 years, Carmen Ramirez, have no children or grandchildren. He’d love to travel, though he’ll wait until the COVID-19 pandemic ends to make plans.
Murphy, who attributes Ramirez’s altruism to his Catholic upbringing and education at Christian Brothers High School, says “Whatever the next act is for Steve, I know it’ll be one he wholly invests his heart and his passions in … because that’s just the kind of person he is.”
One thing’s clear: There will almost certainly be more charity work in Ramirez’s future, with him eying nonprofits that help people in Rwanda and South Africa. “I feel the need to do what I can to help,” he says. “Even if I help just one child, at least I’ve made a difference in one life.”
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