Times Past

Longtime SLO County humanitarian to be honored at Mission fundraiser

Marci Sperlo, CAPSLO’s executive office manager, Santos Arrona and CAPSLO executive director Biz Steinberg in 2015.
Marci Sperlo, CAPSLO’s executive office manager, Santos Arrona and CAPSLO executive director Biz Steinberg in 2015.

Santos and Karen Arrona were in New Orleans for a national Community Action Partnership conference representing San Luis Obispo County’s local chapter (CAPSLO) when early in the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

It quickly became one of the five deadliest hurricanes and the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Following a frightening night of being housed in their hotel’s ballroom with leaking ceilings, falling ceiling tiles and broken windows along the hallways, not to mention plugged toilets, they were given a ride to Houston.

The Arronas couldn’t forget the old sections of New Orleans they’d toured just before the storm hit. Santos said, as Karen recalls, “We have to visit to help the depressed economy.”

When they arrived at their hotel in Houston, they were ushered to a suite of rooms with food laid out for them. The man who had driven them, a hotel manager, said the hotel wanted to honor them for caring about their city.

Caring deeply was in Santos’ nature.

Santos, who died in August 2016, and his family will be honored Saturday at La Mesa de Los Padres as one of the greeters and ushers who carry on the tradition of hospitality at Mission San Luis Obispo.

The La Mesa de los Padres event raises funds for historic preservation.

Marci Sperlo, CAPSLO’s executive office manager, recalls how when Santos was receiving chemotherapy, he dropped by the office to report how he’d seen a 4- or 5-year-old girl receiving therapy at the same time. He said tearfully, “That little girl should be in a Head Start program, not there having a treatment.”

Appropriately, the new Atascadero Head Start Center is named in honor of Santos.

Sandee Menge, a longtime CAPSLO board member, describes Santos as “a gentle soul in a big bear of a man.” She savored their inevitable encounters in the book section at Costco.

Santos’ caring came from his being born into a farm labor family with a father who served as medic in the United States Army during World War II. Santos Sr. volunteered for the Lyndon Johnson-era Economic Opportunity Commission, the predecessor of CAP, in the Arronas’ hometown of Visalia.

Santos came to Cal Poly to get a degree in business, following up with a master’s in counseling and an MBA. He went on to serve as a principal personnel analyst for the county for 34 years. He met his wife, then Karen Clogston, while both volunteered at the Grass Roots Center (Grass Roots Il), an early, iconic nonprofit run by Maxine Lewis dedicated to helping the poor.

Karen came to our home to be interviewed last week after attending an evening NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) meeting.

Santos was a great listener and could talk to anyone despite their political views. He regularly had the “$3 breakfast” (egg, toast, and oatmeal with all the fixings) at McLintocks in San Luis Obispo with Chuck Roeder, John Maulhardt and Frank Villa, dear friends who are more conservative than Santos, and his son, Ben. The $3 sign has been taken down, but you can still ask for “the special” for about $4.50.

Santos’ ability to listen and not preach or grandstand makes a great example for remedying the ills that have beset America — including last week’s tragedy at Charlottesville!

We will tell you more next week.

This year’s fundraising event, “A Taste of the Past: An Evening in the Gardens,” will feature music, dancing, wine and food. It is scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, tickets are $75 and are available by reservation only at the Mission Office (805-781-8220).

This year, La Mesa supports restoration of the more than 250-year-old Stations of the Cross paintings that were dear to Santos’ heart.

Liz Krieger is a retired SLO County children’s librarian. Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.