BY MARK JAFFEE
PROSPECT — For 40 years, Tom and Cathy Santos have lived a real-life love story, going hand in hand, just as they did walking down the aisle at St. Anthony’s Church in Prospect when they were married on July 16, 1982.
Celebrating their ruby anniversary has made this year’s Valentine’s Day special for the couple, who now, more than ever appreciate their life together, stemming from the most impactful of marriage vows — “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. I will love and honor you all the days of my life.”
“We both learned that ‘in sickness and in health’ can bring a couple even closer,” said Tom, who turned 63 on Jan. 26.
In the winter of 2017, Tom was diagnosed with cancer of the right kidney. He would have surgery to remove the organ Jan. 29, 2017.
“I’ll put my life in my wife’s hands any day of the week,” Tom said. “Having her by my side made all of the difference in the world. By nature, Cathy is just a caring, nurturing, genuine person. Her best quality is her loyalty to all those around her. From the moment we met, we just got along. It’s hard to explain, but what it boils down to is the trust we have in each other.”
A nurse at Waterbury Hospital in the cardiac telemetry unit, Cathy said she loves being a nurse “when people need it the most.”
Her husband soon needed that tender loving care after his initial surgery.
Cathy worked the night that Tom sustained a blood clot in his right leg, which required emergency surgery.
“I couldn’t sleep even though I was up all night because of the urgency,” said Cathy. “Finally I got to sleep when I saw Tom in recovery before he went to ICU.”
It would take some time for Tom to recover and resume his job as a national field technical salesman traveling throughout the U.S. for General Mills. He would also return to his sideline jobs as a longtime high school football referee for the Western Connecticut Football Association in the fall, and a boys basketball official for Litchfield Board 7 during the winter season.
Just as Tom’s routine returned to normalcy, it was his turn to be by his wife’s side.
Cathy was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer and would have surgery on March 19, 2021. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the Harold Leever Regional Cancer Center in Waterbury.
During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital restrictions were still securely in place, even for married couples.
“Cathy’s surgery was about two hours, but it seemed like two years,” Tom said. “I stayed home and mowed the lawn to keep my mind active. It was the same thing during her chemotherapy treatments as it was during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was not allowed to be in the hospital or the treatment area.”
Tom became a landscape expert, jokingly saying, “the lawn looked great during that time.”
After a six-month recovery period, Cathy, now 63, resumed her work schedule as a nurse.
How they met
Tom and Cathy were classmates at Wilby High School in the mid-1970s, becoming close friends in their senior year in 1978. They would later become business partners opening Baker’s Dozen, a popular Prospect bakery, on Dec. 8, 1980.
Cathy had worked at Mister Donut in Waterbury as a teenager and convinced Tom to join her in the venture.
“I said to Tom one day that I thought we could do this,” said Cathy.
Even as they worked varied shifts at the bakery, they found time to begin dating, with their first official date a Harry Chapin concert at the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford.
They would eventually marry and, with some help, take off on their honeymoon.
“One of my best friends in life, Mark Necio, agreed to come in and bake for our wholesale accounts only, but the retail side was closed during our honeymoon,” said Tom. “He worked with me for a week learning how to make bread and rolls for customers, and then would deliver them. I’d call him and he’d say, ‘Everything is great’, and then I’d hear him say, ‘I gotta go! The bread is coming out. Think it is done or they are burnt! Have a good time!’
“Mark did a great job, but I think that week aged him a year,” said Tom, who closed the business in 1998.
While they have changed careers, the Santos’ love for baking continues to this day.
When Waterbury native Dan Scavone met Santos nearly 25 years ago while they were officiating basketball games together, he found out Tom had owned a bakery. Dan and his fiance, Danielle, ordered a wedding cake to be delivered to the Grand Oak Villa in Oakville on Aug. 5, 2000.
“I would always give business to another referee,” Scavone said.
“I remember delivering the cake,” recalled Tom.
The Scavones couldn’t recall the type of cake it was, but Danielle noted, “It was yummy!”
“I just loved making treats for people that made them happy,” noted Cathy. “I still do.”
Especially on special occasions.
“Birthdays are milestones of life, rather than age,” said Tom. “We love holiday seasons, especially Christmas. We love having family and friends over for the holidays. Cancer tends to put things into perspective. You tend not to worry about the small things anymore.”
Cathy agreed, adding, “Now, you try to make more memories.”
Occasionally Cathy loves to watch basketball games that Tom officiates.
“It’s something that Tom loves to do, so I’m all for it,” Cathy said.
Former basketball and football official Ralph Davino said Santos’ traits for officiating are ideal.
“Tom probably brings these traits into his personal and professional life, too, but he has that calm, laid-back personality, the perfect temperament and demeanor,” said Davino. “He holds firm boundaries. He knows exactly when to let them (coaches and players) vent, and how far to let them go. He has great judgment and is always in control.”
Was Davino surprised that Santos returned to the gridiron and hard court after his illness?
“I’m not surprised at all,” said Davino. “Tom is a mentally strong guy.”
And a very caring person, too, noted Bob Ferrarotti, Litchfield Board 7 secretary-treasurer.
“I remember Tom sharing the news with me of his cancer diagnosis,” said Ferrarotti. “I adore Tom and probably cried right along with him. He believes in God. We share common beliefs and bonds. He’s a vibrant guy. Basketball just enhances our connection.”
A cause close to his heart
Last month, Litchfield Board 7 and the five other statewide high school basketball officiating boards raised money for research, and donated it to the American Cancer Society through the Officials versus Cancer initiative. Ferrarotti credited Tom Santos with helping to spearhead the cause.
“I thank Tom for pushing this initiative,” said Ferrarotti. “It’s close to his heart and maybe God let him (live) because he knew that he would do some real good for people.”
Reach Mark Jaffee at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@TheRealJaffman