Nov. 11, 1950 - Jan. 2016
Michael J. Santillo left an indelible mark on numerous people, from the ex-wife and daughter who adored him, and the people he counseled with addiction problems, to Sunoco convenience store clerks who came to know him as a regular customer.
Mr. Santillo, 65, was killed just a few hundred feet from the store when he was fatally struck by a car Friday night while riding in his motorized wheelchair on Evans Road in Amherst.
Mr. Santillo was born in the Village of Warsaw but lived most of his life in Williamsville. He attended Diocesan Preparatory Seminary in Buffalo, and graduated from Williamsville South High School.
Heavily influenced by the 1960s counterculture, Mr. Santillo spent the summer of 1969 in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, working as a laborer and selling the underground newspaper the Berkeley Barb on street corners. He began at Canisius College that September, and was involved in promoting a grape boycott led by union organizer Cesar Chavez and active in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English.
“Michael and I were children of the ’60s,” said Margaret “Peggy” Santillo, his former wife, who remained close with Michael after their marriage ended, and is a former Amherst Town Board member. “My daughter and I always thought he could have been a wonderful priest, except for the ’60s part of him. He definitely wouldn’t have lasted.”
Mr. Santillo had many jobs over the years, but two of the most prominent were teaching Spanish at St. Paul’s School in Kenmore, and later as a certified addiction counselor.
He was an addictions counselor in several locations, including the Western New York VA Hospital, Batavia VA Medical Center and Clearview Treatment Services at Mount St. Mary’s Hospital Health Center, and director of the El Comienzo Alcohol Program in Buffalo.
Mr. Santillo practiced meditation and yoga, and was a member of Himalayan Institute Buffalo.
He played folk and classical music on guitar, and the guitarron, which he learned while being part of a mariachi band in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Mr. Santillo was an original member of the Lexington Food Cooperative, and enjoyed cooking. He wrote an illustrated family history of Sicilian cooking for family members, which he traced back three generations, interwoven with sauce recipes.
He considered his greatest achievement to be his daughter, Jessica R. Santillo. He was proud of her for many reasons, including her work under President Obama as a White House assistant press secretary in the West Wing, and other positions. She also held communications jobs with Obama when he ran for president in 2008 and for re-election in 2012, and for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 run.
Father and daughter owned a llama together that they would visit in Eden on weekends. He also wrote handwritten letters to her throughout his life, beginning when she moved away for college.
“What was so special about him was that he really just felt what people were experiencing, which I think was a rare gift,” his daughter said. “I think that’s why you saw so many people – from the clerks at the Sunoco store to people he’d known for decades – have such a deep connection with him. He had the biggest heart, really. He was a man of big emotions – deep emotions – and he didn’t hide those.”
Mr. Santillo had double hip surgery in 2000, followed by two surgeries on one of his legs in 2011 and again in 2012, which left him unable to walk.
Mr. Santillo was living in the Jewish Federation Apartments in Amherst at the time of his death, with Margaret Santillo as his primary caretaker.
Other survivors include two brothers, James and Patrick.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday at SS Peter & Paul Church, 5480 Main St., Williamsville. Burial will be in Mount Morris Cemetery, Mount Morris.
– Mark Sommer