The feeling you get visiting Florentino Santiago’s house in Winslow is one of optimism — and happiness.

The children fly through the door, laughing and chatting about their school day.

Their mother, Mary Cruz, is waiting at the kitchen table to greet them.

It’s an especially joyful time for the family because Santiago, 53, is soon to get something he has waited for all his life: a high school diploma.

He has worked hard the last three years, attending classes at Mid-Maine Regional Adult Community Education in Waterville. On Tuesday, he will don cap and gown and march with 32 other proud students at Waterville Senior High School.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted, so I’m going to feel great about it,” he said.

The path to earning a degree was not easy.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, Santiago dropped out of high school his junior year, worked in a grocery store, owned his own construction company for a time and was trained as a chef. He came to Maine to visit a relative more than a dozen years ago, fell in love with the state and decided to move his family here.

He worked as a kitchen manager many years, but ultimately hard work and long hours took their toll on his declining health so he worked part-time at House of Pizza in Winslow.

Santiago has fibromyalgia, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. He has had left shoulder and hip replacements and expects to have his right hip and shoulder replaced also.

“I had reconstruction of my right knee April 14, and I will have my left knee replaced after graduation,” he said.

Santiago is in pain all of the time, but insists it will not get the better of him.

“I made it to become my friend instead of my enemy,” he said. “I’ve got to live with it for the rest of my life. I’ve got to deal with it, so why worry about it? I make it part of the family. It works. It works for me with school and everything I have going on with the family.”

Santiago and Cruz, 44, have six children, four who are all grown up and living away and two of whom are still at home — Crystal, 15, and Carmen, 13. They also care for their live-in granddaughter, Niesha, 9, and Santiago’s brother, Jesus, who is 55 and has Down syndrome and dementia.

Supporting Santiago through his schooling has been a family focus.

“I always tell him all the time I’m very proud of him, and when he brings home a report card, I always praise him,” Cruz said.

When he started taking classes three years ago, it was tough. The curriculum was different than what he had known many years ago in New York, and in his first semester of adult education, he failed a class. He thought about giving up, but stuck with it.

His teachers worked with him, sometimes one-on-one. Even his children’s teachers pitched in to help. One particular adult ed teacher, Paula Raymond, was his rock.

“I had four classes with her — English, English literature, math, and U.S. government and history,” Santiago said. “She’s a strict teacher. She tried not to teach you just the subject of the class, but also to take care of responsibilities — to not be late for class. She taught organizational skills and communication.”

Adult Education Director Susan Tuthill, who is retiring this year after 40 years in education, also was supportive, recognizing Santiago’s medical issues, his responsibilities at home and busy schedule with not only his brothers’ needs, but also his and his family’s. Santiago promised Tuthill he would complete his studies this spring so that she could see him graduate.

“He’s worked very, very hard,” Tuthill said of Santiago, the oldest graduate this year. “It’s really been a struggle, one course at a time. He just never gives up. We’re really proud of him.”

Santiago hopes to enroll in the culinary arts program at Kennebec Valley Community College in the fall to earn an associate degree — not so that he can go to work in the field, but to put his experience and skills into a program and emerge with official recognition.

“I just want to put that certificate on the wall,” he said.

Throughout my visit, Santiago and Cruz often talked about the importance of teaching their children by example. Santiago said he knows his children are proud of him, which gives him the incentive to continue furthering his education.

Crystal said her father is a role model, not only for the family, but also for her peers at Winslow High School.

“A lot of students think it’s cool that he’s going to graduate,” she said.

Carmen agreed, saying he makes her want to succeed:

“It’s an inspiration to see him go back to school for something he really wants — and to see him strive for that, it inspires me to do the things I want.”

They joke around in the family kitchen, laughing and talking about Tuesday night’s graduation.

“We try to be happy as much as possible,” Santiago said. “Why be sad? You always carry a smile on your face. You see people laughing with you, it’s fun. I always say, a smile makes another person smile.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected].

filed under: