Legendary activist, community leader ‘Uncle’ Bob Santos passes away at age 82

The International Examiner August 27, 2016 0
Uncle Bob Santos speaks at the June 16, 2015 Stories In The Alley Hosts Book Reading sponsored by SCIDpda. • Photos by Maria Batayola

Uncle Bob Santos speaks at the June 16, 2015 Stories In The Alley Hosts Book Reading sponsored by SCIDpda. • Photos by Maria Batayola

Updated (9/27/16 at 3:12 p.m.):

The following is from a summary of personal memories by Elaine Chu:

What I learned from Bob was respect—we can still be very good friends, but have a level of respect for the differences in opinions we have. In other words, don’t take things personally. It is OK to disagree! I learned leadership—it isn’t about connecting with just certain groups of people, it is about being able to connect with everyone for one purpose. I learned presence—the people you help or serve want to physically see you. They do not want to hear a voice or a piece of paper with your name on it. You must be there. And finally, I learned purpose—we are all in community work because we see inequality in something—what do you want to change?



Opinion: How I Remember Uncle Bob


Updated (9/8/16 at 2:21 p.m.):

The following summary of “Uncle” Bob Santos’ history as an activist in the community, which appeared in the September 7, 2016 print edition of the International Examiner was written by Gary Iwamoto, who collaborated with Santos on his autobiography, “Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs,” in 2002 and again in 2015 on the book, “Gang of Four.”



Robert Nicholas Santos (1934-2016)


Updated (9/4/16 at 6:21 p.m.): A celebration and remembrance in honor of Robert “Uncle Bob” Santos will be held on Friday, September 23 from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at WAMU Theater at CenturyLink Field (800 Occidental Avenue S., Seattle, WA 98134), located on the corner of S. Royal Brougham Way & Occidental Avenue S. For directions, click here. The public is invited to attend.

The event will be held on the edge of Seattle’s International District/Chinatown where Uncle Bob dedicated his life to develop and preserve.

Uncle Bob is survived by his wife, Sharon Tomiko Santos, his children Danny, Simone Busby, Robin, Tom (Nancy), John (Meagan), and Nancy V. Santos; 19 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

Uncle Bob has been entrusted to the care of Butterworth Arthur A. Wright Chapel, 520 West Raye Street, Seattle, WA 98119. Public visitation will be on Monday, September 12, from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and on Tuesday, September 13, from 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The family suggests that, in lieu of flowers, remembrances be given to the following community nonprofit organizations:

International District Emergency Center: P.O. Box 14103., Seattle, WA 98114

The late Donnie Chin devoted his life to IDEC, training youth and coordinating neighborhood safety and emergency services, as he was doing when he was killed by gunfire a year ago. During the past year, Uncle Bob led efforts to bring Donnie’s killer to justice.

InterIm CDA: 310 Maynard Ave. S, Seattle, WA 98104
This is the first International District/Chinatown organization that Uncle Bob started back in the early 1970s. In addition to building affordable housing and finding creative ways to preserve and develop the ID/Chinatown, InterIm spawned many community organizations from the Asian Counseling & Referral Services, International Community Health Services, the ID Housing Alliance as well as IDEC. Uncle Bob was executive director or interim executive director at least four times over the decades.

Cards and letters can be sent to: P.O. Box 28992, Seattle, WA 98118-8992


Updated (8/31/16 at 11:44 p.m.): The memorial for “Uncle” Bob Santos is still in the planning process but organizers have said it will happen on September 23. An update will be made once the details of the memorial are finalized.


Community leader “Uncle” Bob Santos passed away on the morning of Saturday, August 27. Born and raised in Seattle’s International District, Uncle Bob spent most of his life fighting for civil rights and blazing a trail for generations of activists as a mentor, community leader, and organizer. During his time as executive director of Inter*Im from 1972 to 1989, a number of key nonprofit organizations in the Asian Pacific Islander community were born. And through his leadership and legacy, Uncle Bob will forever live on through the activism and vigor of the Asian Pacific Islander community.

Read more about Uncle Bob’s legacy here

“No one has done more to revitalize Seattle’s Chinatown/International District and fight for civil rights and social justice than Bob Santos,” said OCA Greater Seattle president Jacqueline Wu. “He was an icon who has left an indelible legacy as an effective and respected community leader who persistently fought for decent housing, seniors, children’s program and the under-privileged. We will greatly miss his leadership, and will always be grateful and remember his work. Our deepest condolences to the Santos family.”

“In remembering Bob, he often times made community work bearable with is jokes, laughter, and his signing,” said community activist Frank Irigon, a longtime friend of Santos and OCA board member. “He made activism normal.”

Last year, Uncle Bob was featured in the book, The Gang of Four: Four Leaders, Four Communities, One Friendship, which tells the story of four activists and community leaders from four ethnic communities in Seattle: Santos from the Asian Pacific Islander community, Native American Bernie Whitebear, Latino Roberto Maestas, and African American Larry Gossett.

The International Examiner was able to catch up with Uncle Bob following the book’s launch to talk about growing up in the International District and about becoming a community activist. Read it here.

Uncle Bob Santos on a bullhorn at the July 31 nonviolent protest against hookah bars. • Photo by Isaac Liu

Uncle Bob Santos on a bullhorn at the July 31 nonviolent protest against hookah bars. • Photo by Isaac Liu

In August 2015, Uncle Bob mourned the loss of Donnie Chin in a letter addressed to him, which can be read here.

Uncle Bob joined in on the discussion about The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of The Mikado in 2014. Read his letter to the editor here.

In the 1980s, Uncle Bob provided a special column on the back page of the International Examiner titled, “InterIm’s Corner. See the IE archives here.

Last month, Uncle Bob shared his thoughts on the legacy of Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo here.

If you would like to share your memories of Uncle Bob, please send a letter to the editor to editor@iexaminer.org.


“Uncle” Bob Santos, a long-time Filipino American activist. File Photo

“Uncle” Bob Santos, a long-time Filipino American activist. File Photo

Updated 8/28/16 at 9:11 a.m.

The following is a profile of “Uncle” Bob Santos written by Gary Iwamoto for Uncle Bob’s 75th birthday in February 2009:

Uncle Bob Turns 75

By Gary Iwamoto

Bob Santos is one of our community’s legends.  He has earned this reputation by having a long history, of community activism, playing a substantial role in the revitalization of Seattle’s International District.  He has been a tireless advocate for the preservation of the International District as a viable place to live and work, speaking out to protect the International District against the negative impacts from the sports stadiums, downtown development, and traffic congestion.  On February 21, 2009, “Uncle Bob” will be celebrating his 75th birthday at the Avalon Ballroom.

As a child growing up in the 1930’s in what is now called the International District among the prostitutes, manongs (older Filipinos), and transients, who like the buildings, were often neglected and abandoned, Bob developed a love and appreciation for this neighborhood.  

When Bob became the director of the International District Improvement Association in 1972,  the District had been in a steep decline.  There were more abandoned buildings than occupied buildings.  Residential housing which did exist violated fire and housing codes.  Operating out of a small storefront on the corner of Maynard and Jackson in the old Bush Hotel, Inter*Im, under Bob’s leadership, became a magnet for young Asian activists, many of whom were recent college graduates or emerging professionals with fresh and innovative ideas toward serving the community.  Plans were developed and proposals were written to fund demonstration projects which would later become the

International Community Health Services, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the Denise Louie Education Center, and the International District Housing Alliance. Under Bob, Inter*Im sponsored a meal voucher program, a legal referral service/clinic, and a nutrition program.

One of Bob’s proudest accomplishments as the Director of Inter*Im was the development of the Danny Woo International District Community Garden.  The hillside between Washington and Main Street was overgrown with weeds and sticker bushes.  Bob rallied a massive community effort to make the garden a reality.  He negotiated lease agreements with the City of Seattle and the Woo Family.  He coaxed and cajoled the use of bulldozer and heavy machinery to remove the underbrush, persuaded the local horse race track to dump tons of horse manure to fertilize the land, and organized community work parties, bringing in not only the young Asian activists but work crews from El Centro de la Raza and the United Indians for All Tribes.  Bob instituted the annual community pig roast in the garden which continues today.

As Director of Inter*Im, Bob was instrumental in the formation of the public corporation, today known as the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority in which he also served first as a board member and executive director.  Federal housing grants, low interest loans, and partnership development agreements  supported the rehabilitation of older apartments and hotels such as the Bush Hotel, the New Central Apartments, and the Jackson Apartments.  Bob also laid the groundwork for the International District Village Square by having the foresight more than twenty years ago to acquire the site, an abandoned bus maintenance and storage facility from Metro.

In 1982— along with other “Gang of Four” friends Bernie Whitebear, Larry Gossett, and Roberto Maestas— Uncle Bob co-founded the Minority Executive Director’s Coalition. The “Gang of Four” brought their communities together and developed a united stand on such diverse issues as fishing rights, immigrants’ rights, welfare reform, and funding for social services.

In 2002, Santos published an autobiography—Humbows, not Hotdogs!: Memoirs of a savvy Asian American Activist—which is also an important source of information about the multiracial coalitions that comprised Seattle’s civil rights movements in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Bob retired from Inter*Im in 2005 but continued to be active as a mentor, confidante, and advisor.  Bob continues to work tirelessly taking evenings and weekends to do tours of the ID, serves as a popular speaker to students from elementary to graduate-level classrooms, and is the one of the most sought-after emcees for community banquets and events in the Asian Pacific community.  

Uncle Bob’s most endearing trait is that he makes community service fun.  His enduring charm and leadership has drawn volunteers of all backgrounds and especially young people to the ID to continue the rich legacy of activism and volunteers. Hanging out with Uncle Bob, enjoying the pleasure of his company, sharing a drink or two or three at the Seas, and Bush Garden. we all have our Uncle Bob stories.  He is the “King of Karaoke.”  When you go looking for Uncle Bob, he’s not hard to find–he’s the center of attention at the table where everyone is carrying on.


The following is a statement from Seattle Mayor Ed Murray released Saturday, August 27:

“Michael and I were heartbroken to hear of today’s passing of ‘Uncle’ Bob Santos, one of our city’s great community leaders. Bob Santos touched countless lives across every race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and age in Seattle. He was everyone’s ‘uncle’ because of his universal and unwavering friendship, and he was a hero to many marginalized Seattlites who he tirelessly advocated for. I have been fortunate to have worked with him on many of these issues for over two decades.

“Seattle mourns the loss of one or greatest civic leaders tonight, and our city is much greater because of his life. Our thoughts are with his wife, Sharon Tomiko Santos, and his entire family.”


King County Executive Dow Constantine issued the following statement on Saturday, August 27:

“Bob Santos was a passionate believer in the power of bringing people together to fight for fairness and opportunity. He was a man defined by both his work and his friendships. Along with Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas and Larry Gossett, Bob formed the ‘Gang of Four,’ legendary for achieving civil rights victories and neighborhood preservation. Seattle would look much different if not for Bob.

“Ever a serious force for social change, Bob was equally serious fun to be around. I regret that I will never be able to make good on my solemn promise to join Uncle Bob in a karaoke duet at the venerable Bush Garden on Maynard Avenue.”


Updated 8/29/16 at 12:15 a.m.

OCA—Greater Seattle said the following in a statement:

“Bob was a visionary and doer, who later became the director of the Chinatown/International District PDA and the Regional Representative for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Northwest Region.

“When Bob, Roberto Maestas, Larry Gossett, and Bernie Whitebear—each representing respective communities of color—began supporting each other and collaborating, they became the ‘Gang of Four’ or the ‘Four Amigos.’ Together, the gang formed a unity of communities of color coming together to determine their own destiny.

“Bob Santos has left an indelible mark on Seattle and should go down in history among Seattle’s prominent civil rights leaders, joining the likes of Chief Sealth, Horace Cayton, Gordon Hirabayashi, Wing Luke, and Tyree Scott.”

To read OCA—Greater Seattle’s full statement, click here.


InterIm CDA said the following in a statement:

“The days ahead for all of us at InterIm CDA will be very emotionally difficult. Each of us has lost a part of ourselves that can never be replaced. As the InterIm CDA family, we come together to honor and remember Uncle Bob, and commit ourselves with strengthened resolve, to uphold his legacy and everything he stood for. Social justice. Racial justice. Fairness. Economic justice. Activism. API organizing. Immigrant and refugee empowerment. Community. In the spirit and forever memory of Uncle Bob, InterIm CDA remains strong. We seek strength in his loss as we know he would want us to do. Long live the Chinatown International District. Long live social justice. Long live the legacy of Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob Santos is forever in our hearts.”

To read InterIm CDA’s full statement, click here.


The Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) released the following statement:

“Uncle Bob Santos fought to protect the history, culture, and places that are cherished by so many immigrants and communities in our state. His efforts to save Seattle’s Chinatown International District, where he served in many leadership roles and was beloved for his singing at Bush Garden, earned him the title of ‘unofficial mayor.’

“His decades of activism with the Gang of Four demonstrated the power of solidarity and working together to fight for social justice and political causes, especially for the most vulnerable. Uncle Bob helped create institutions, including the Commission, and instilled his vision in countless leaders who will continue his legacy.”


Updated 8/30/16 at 12:15 p.m.

From the forward written by Ron Chew from “Uncle” Bob Santos’ autobiography, Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs, which was published in 2002 by the International Examiner:

“Things are a lot easier now,” Uncle Bob said to me recently, commenting on the difference between today and the 1970s, when Inter*Im was first making its mark as an advocate of neighborhood improvement. By a twist of fate, as we were talking, Uncle Bob had been coaxed to return as director of Inter*Im, working out of the same storefrong space in the N.P. Hotel where he got started, his desk in the exact same spot it occupied 30 years ago, downstairs from his dad’s old apartment, now remodeled. “A lot of people didn’t really care for the activists back in the old days. But we learned how to work the system. Some of us moved into positions where we could make a difference. And we got a lot of things done and built. That’s a legacy that we can look back on with pride, something for the next generation to build on.”


Updated 8/31/16 at 11:43 a.m.

The following is a statement from Chinese American Citizens Alliance, Seattle Lodge:

“Uncle” Bob Santos was unmatched in his contribution to revitalize the Asian Pacific American and greater community. He was widely recognized for his dedication to advocate for civil rights and social justice. Community leader “Uncle” Bob Santos passed away on Saturday August 27, 2016. He was 82. He was an icon for the Seattle Chinatown International District for over half a century.

“Uncle” Bob’s community involvements were second to none, both wide-reaching and substantial. He was a member of the “Gang of Four,” a group that fought for civil rights and equality, and battled against unjust government policies in the 1960-70s Seattle. Besides Asian American Uncle Bob, the “Gang of Four” included African American Larry Gusset, Latino Roberto Maestas, and Native American Bernie Whitebear. “This united powerhouse force supported each other’s ethnic communities and other groups in bettering life for all communities—locally and nationall,” observed Bettie Luke, C.A.C.A. Seattle Lodge Vice President. There has been no other multicultural team of advocates to match the impact of these leaders.

“I am aware of many of his efforts and accomplishments in creating a better community for the Seattle Chinatown/ International District. He will be greatly missed by all in the community,” C.A.C.A. Seattle Lodge President Ming-Ming Tung Edelman said.

“I have known Uncle Bob since the early ’70s. He was a pioneer and an inspirational community leader. We will missed him very much,” added C.A.C.A. Seattle Board Secretary Fred Yee.


The following is a statement from Washington state Sen. Bob Hasegawa:

“On behalf of the Senate Democrats, we are deeply saddened by the loss of ‘Uncle’ Bob Santos—a true advocate and champion of civil rights and social justice in Washington state.

“By uniting not only the Asian American community in Washington, but many people of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, Bob proved that lasting change comes from a united front. There are children and families who received health care because of him, who got housing or were able to buy their first home because of him—not many people can say they had such a direct impact on the lives of their neighbors. His legacy will live on in their memories and ours.

“Like many of my colleagues, I am proud to have called Bob a friend. He was a mentor and moral anchor for our entire community. We will be forever grateful for his example of fearless leadership, compassion for his neighbors and his principled guidance for our community—and we will continue to carry out his work.

“Our thoughts are with his wife, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, and his entire family. We hope they are comforted by the knowledge that Bob left this world a better place than he found it.”


The following is a statement from National CAPACD:

National CAPACD is deeply saddened by the passing of “Uncle” Bob Santos this past Saturday, August 27, 2016. Uncle Bob was not only a founding father of National CAPACD, but also a mentor and a friend to many of our past and current staff and Board.

In his role as executive director of both InterIm CDA and SCIDpda, Bob was instrumental in the preservation and growth of Seattle’s International District (ID). Much of the neighborhood’s vitality today can be directly attributed to Bob’s leadership and vision. One cannot walk through the ID without seeing Bob’s influence everywhere—from youth and seniors gardening together in the Danny Woo Garden, to the nationally recognized ID Village Square development featuring childcare, a health clinic, community center, and affordable family housing.

But Bob’s impact is felt far beyond Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. For over four decades, he inspired new generations of young activists across the country to serve their communities and join the fight against injustice. His humorous stories and sage advice taught us all about the importance of building community—learning from one another, working together shoulder to shoulder, and making the time to celebrate and have fun together.

Our condolences go out to his family and to the Seattle community. We feel your loss profoundly, and pledge to carry on his legacy through continuing the work he started.


The following is a statement from Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Gossett:

“Bob Santos was a pivotal figure in the life of people of King County. The strong and vibrant International District will be ‘Uncle Bob’s’ living legacy for the people of this region—it was his home, and he protected that neighborhood and the rich history of the people of all races who lived in that community every day of his life.

“Personally, I’ve lost a dear friend and ally who worked on empowering communities of color throughout our region and nationally. I was immensely proud of Bob being one of my ‘Amigos’ and with Roberto Maestas and Bernie Whitebear, we spoke, marched and, at times, went to jail to ensure that our communities received the opportunities that had been denied them for too long.

“My deep condolences to his wife Sharon, his six children and his grand and great–grandchildren.

“He will be deeply missed.”


Updated 9/1/16 at 3:34 p.m.


Bob Santos—A champion for homeless people

From Low Income Housing Institute executive director Sharon Lee: “It is sad to see the passing of Uncle Bob. However, he would want us to carry on with our work for housing justice. So let’s celebrate his life! Let’s keep in mind Uncle Bob’s special efforts to help homeless people. He was always there for so many of us.”


A guest post about Uncle Bob Santos by Karen Ishizuka on the Angry Asian Man blog can be found here.

A guest post about Uncle Bob Santos by Soya Jung at Racefiles.com can be found here.


Updated 9/12/16 at 12:12 p.m.

unnamed-1

The following is a statement from Denise Louie Education Center:

We are deeply saddened by the passing of Uncle Bob Santos, beloved civil rights activist and founding father of Denise Louie Education Center. The community has lost a legendary leader whose impact will inspire generations to come.

Almost forty years ago, Uncle Bob helped to found Denise Louie when he realized the lack of child care for low income workers in the International District community. He was a tireless advocate for social justice and equity, a visionary, and a tremendous champion for our community.

We will miss his passion and commitment to our children and families, and his great sense of humor. Our deepest condolences go out to Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos and his family.

Rest in peace, Uncle Bob.

For more news, click here

Leave A Response »

You must be logged in to post a comment.