Shawn Santo’s infectious smile and outgoing personality will be forever remembered by his family and friends, who are mourning the loss of the 20-year-old Valley Stream Central High School graduate.
Santo, who lived in Bellmore, died on Christmas Eve of apparent heart failure, though the exact cause has not been determined.
His family moved from Queens to Valley Stream when he was in junior high school, and he attended Memorial and Central before graduating in 2010. During those six years, he made countless friends. “He was an outstanding kid, a smile on his face every day,” said Principal Dr. Joseph Pompilio. “He lit up a room when he walked in. He knew everybody.”
Chelsea Starna, a fellow graduate, said she met Santo when they were in seventh grade, and that he was a little shy back then. But he eventually came out of his shell, and by ninth grade they were good friends. In high school, Starno recalled, they were in many of the same classes, and also spent a lot of time outside school together.
“Everybody really loved him,” she said. “He was friends with everyone.”
Starna said that Santo took the initiative to get to know people; he didn’t wait for others to come to him. And he had a lot of school spirit, she said.
Nicole Menna said she still remembers the moment she met Shawn — seventh grade, second-period English class. From there a long-lasting friendship blossomed. “Shawn was pretty much my best friend,” she said. “Now he’s my guardian angel.”
When they got older, the two would often spend hours just driving around, singing along to songs on the radio.
In their junior year, Santo and several classmates took part in the annual Breast Cancer Walk at Jones Beach. It was early in the morning and everyone was tired, and Santo — who had dyed his hair pink — made it his mission to liven everyone up, even giving his friends piggyback rides, Starna recalled.
Santo leaves behind an older sister, Stephanie, 30, and an older brother, Steven, 27. Their mother died when he was 14, and they lost their father two years ago.
Stephanie Santo said that she and her youngest brother were very close, and she helped raise him after the death of their mother. “He was my best friend,” she said. “I talked to him about anything and everything.”
Shawn loved to cook and always watched the Food Network, his sister recalled, and he especially enjoyed making Italian dishes. The two hoped to open up their own restaurant someday. For Thanksgiving, Shawn brought six pounds of mashed potatoes and sautéed mushrooms to her house. “He was an amazing cook,” she said. “He was the only one I would let cook with me in the kitchen.”
Stephanie said that her brother considered becoming a chef, but because of hip problems, he wasn’t sure he would be able to. After high school he attended Nassau Community College, worked a few odd jobs and was considering a career in the medical field.
He was also a talented writer, Stephanie said, and often wrote personal letters to people. When he was 14, he wrote a three-page letter to the television cooking show host Rachael Ray, asking to be on her show. That same year, he gave his mother’s eulogy. “He wrote from the heart,” Stephanie said. “He articulated his words very well.”
Her brother had a unique sense of humor, and was responsible, reliable and empathetic, she said. Starna added that Santo was obnoxious, but in a good way, and was always smiling. Menna recalled his laugh, and said he strove to make everyone else laugh. And Pompilio described him as polite and a good student who did things the right way.
“My stomach just shrunk, my heart just broke,” Pompilio said, describing his reaction when he learned of Santo’s death. “He had that much influence on people.”
“It’s sad to see the first death from our class occurred only two and a half years after graduation,” said George Seyffert, the 2010 class president. “No one can be ready for what life throws at us. We have to just take it in and live with it. Shawn will always be in our hearts and will always be a member in what I call the family of the class of 2010.
A wake last Thursday and Friday at Krauss Funeral Home in Franklin Square drew hundreds of friends and former teachers. Santo was buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens.
At the wake, Stephanie said that a Central teacher came up to her and told her that when Shawn was in high school, he comforted the teacher after she lost her 5-day-old infant, even though Shawn wasn’t even one of her students.
Stephanie said she was looking forward to seeing what her brother had in store for his future, and will miss just being able to talk to him. She noted that her brother always described her as the “the sauce to his garlic knots.”
“He said we were twins separated at birth by 10 years,” she said. “It was a unique bond. We were close as anything could be.”
Menna said she last saw Santo about a week before he died, and they talked the night before his death on the phone. “He was the strongest person I’ve ever met,” she said. “He gave me hope. He made me the person I am today. Hopefully one day I’ll be as strong as he was.”