“Uncle Bob” Santos, long-time Seattle social justice champion and one of the founders of International Community Health Services (ICHS), passed away on Saturday, August 27 at the age of 82.
In his role as executive director of the International District Improvement Association (Inter*Im) during the 1970s, Santos spearheaded efforts to preserve the Chinatown-International District in the wake of the construction of the giant Kingdome nearby. His efforts—over the next several decades—resulted in the restoration of old hotels, construction of new low-income housing and creation of bilingual social services for the low-income immigrants in the neighborhood. His successful advocacy gave birth to ICHS, the city-chartered Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Danny Woo Community Garden, Merchants Parking Association and a host of programs for immigrants, low-income residents and small businesses.
In the 1990s, Santos successfully negotiated for the transfer of surplus Metro property at Eighth Avenue and South Dearborn Street to SCIDpda to develop into the $23 million International District Village Square, which currently houses the ICHS flagship clinic.
In 1975, Santos helped establish the first home for the ICHS clinic in a tiny one-room storefront at 416 Maynard Avenue South, across the street from Hing Hay Park. ICHS CEO Teresita Batayola said Santos would often reminisce and laugh with her about the clinic’s humble origins. The challenge, according to Batayola, was “trying to convince the elderly Filipino and Chinese men living in squalid conditions that our clinic was their clinic, with no hidden agendas other than helping them get well.
“Bob was not alone in his passion for protecting and improving Chinatown/ID. But he was singular in inspiring and organizing so many of us, especially students and the youth. Over the years, I was always drawn to his sense of justice and passion for our community.”
Santos was affectionately known to ICHS staff and medical providers as “Patient Number 47.” ICHS currently serves over 25,500 patients at its seven clinic locations throughout Seattle, Bellevue and Shoreline.
Susie Chin, hired in 1975 as the first full-time employee at ICHS, said Uncle Bob had encouraged her to apply for the job. Chin worked as front desk coordinator. At the time, she said, the elderly low-income Filipinos and Chinese residents traveled from Chinatown all the way to Pioneer Square or Beacon Hill to seek badly needed health care. “It was really hard for them because many of them were walking with canes,” she said. “Uncle Bob knew that there was a great need for the clinic. He knew first-hand because his dad lived in Chinatown, was blind and Uncle Bob had to take him around everywhere. Everything Uncle Bob did was from the heart.”
Cris Krisologo-Elliott, ICHS board member for 12 years, said Santos was an outstanding leader “who loved his community, but really loved his family, which has grown from 6 children to a large number of grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
She said she has fond memories of the time when Uncle Bob was living in a small apartment in the International District and spending much of his time schmoozing and performing karaoke at the Bush Garden with “many of his friends, protégés, community leaders and politicians.”
“It was like the Bush Garden was his living room and reception space, always surrounded as he sang ‘New York, New York’ or ‘Lady in Red,’” Krisologo-Elliott said. “Little did I know that years after hanging out at the Bush Garden, his son, John, and my daughter, Meagan, would meet and marry. So thus we became like relatives, sharing grandchildren.”
Batayola added, “Over the years, Uncle Bob graced ICHS’ Bloom Gala, dancing center stage with choreographed back-up dancers or limping slowly on stage with a walker in a patient gown, only to dramatically toss the walker and bust some moves.”