David Santoro was witty, outgoing, and spontaneous. He entertained thousands during college halftime shows with his resonant voice and wry sense of humor. Tall with dark eyes, curly hair, and a constant smile, he turned heads on the dance floor. Dave liked mixing with celebrities, and he once baked a pie for Lily Tomlin when she was in town. He was gay, but for a long time he hid that fact from some of his closest friends.
I didn’t know Dave personally when we were classmates at Brown University in the late 1970s. I know these things now because he was brave enough to speak up before he died.
In February 1991, our alumni magazine published a wrenching essay Dave composed after our tenth reunion. In it, he recalled our class brunch and the awkward silence that fell after our president mentioned three classmates who had passed away recently and invited us to eulogize them. Dave had been diagnosed with AIDS several months before the reunion. He was angry with himself for not getting up to acknowledge the three –- even though he hadn’t known them. “At whatever reunion my name is called,” he wrote, “I hope someone takes a moment to tell the others who I was, and to let them know how very much I wish we’d had the chance to meet.”
Not long ago, I came across Dave’s piece when requesting a back issue of the magazine. I remembered that he had died and looked up the date: July 7, 1991, just five months after his essay appeared. He was 31 years old. Re-reading his candid and poignant words left me achingly sad, but also wanting to get to know Dave and say “goodbye.” Thanks to Facebook, I found some of his friends, and this is what I learned:
Dave came from a middle-class Italian family in North Providence and was part of a small Rhode Island contingent in our class. His fun-loving personality drew him to join the Brown University Band, a wild and tight-knit group that performed at hockey and football games. He played the glockenspiel (a percussion instrument resembling a xylophone) but was soon tapped to help write and deliver the infamous halftime shows. The scripts were laced with suggestive phrases that elicited groans and roars from the crowd, and Dave delivered them perfectly.
Anita, a fellow Rhode Islander, remembers how Dave entertained her during breakfast shifts at one of the campus dining halls: “I was often working the omelet station, and if I was lucky Dave was serving at the hot food counter next to me. We would catch up on people we knew, and then, when no one was around, he would deepen his voice and begin, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, friends and alumni....’ [the opening lines to each halftime band show] and give me an advance recitation of next weekend's script. Dave was funny and outrageous, and a friend I will always miss.”
When Michele first met Dave her freshman year, she was completely enamored. “He was charming and gorgeous and funny and sexy. I became a writer for the band, and he was my voice,” she told me over the phone. The two began dating. But for more than a year, Dave hid his homosexuality from Michele. She later understood why he would disappear for stretches of time without explanation: he was visiting the local gay bathhouses. “AIDS was widespread at the time, but nobody knew about it yet,” she says. She was understandably furious and hurt by his deception.
Michele lost touch with Dave after college, but they reconnected during a gathering of band friends around 1991. Dave had been diagnosed in 1989, when AIDS treatments were still in their infancy, and he looked very ill. Michele told Dave she wasn’t angry anymore. “We had never really reconciled, and it was great to see him and have a chance to forgive. I remembered all the reasons I was attracted to him. He was a great person.”
Another friend, Bill, recalls many zany times with Dave, like riding the boisterous band bus to away games and greeting celebrities who were on campus to receive honorary degrees at graduation. “Dave liked corresponding with famous people,” Bill says. “When Lily Tomlin was in town, he baked her a pie and left it at the stage door. He got a thank you note back that said they all ‘ate it like piggies.’” Bill still has a copy of the recipe (ingredients include Ritz crackers, pecans, cream cheese, and pineapple) in Dave’s neat stylized handwriting, punctuated by his little drawing of a slice of pie.
Over brunch in Cambridge this winter, I asked Bill what he would say if he could see Dave again. “I’d say, ‘Hey Dave, what are you doing for dinner?’” he replied. Bill doesn’t picture his friend as being sick. “I remember the happy times together. What I feel is the sadness of missing the happy times.”
It was Bill who encouraged David Santoro to compose that heartfelt essay in our alumni magazine, and who helped create an AIDS quilt panel (see brown and red panel below) dedicated to both Dave and classmate Bill Thomas.
If I could, I’d tell Dave that I wish our paths had crossed during college. And I’d let him know that he was, indeed, eulogized at our next class reunion.