Democratic council candidate Joe Santo visits Trenton Central High School, where he taught for four decades, July 22, 2013. (Photo by Mark Wetherbee, Jr.)

Joe Santo learned lessons as educator

For four decades, Joe Santo stood in front of teenagers at Trenton Central High School, taught them about the American political system and implored them to make the most of it.

This November, Santo, a Democrat, will try to live those lessons. He is one of six candidates running for a four-year term on Hamilton Township council. Santo ran unsuccessfully for the same office in 2010.

“I would tell my students, ‘If you want to get wet, jump into the pool.’” Santo said. “If you see things you don’t like, then it’s up to you to try to make a change. The way to do that is by working through the system. The basic thing is, to make change you have to do certain things … I think I have ideas that can help the community. That’s what I told the kids; you’ve got to get involved.”

As much as anything, Santo credits his career as an educator for shaping him and his outlook on life. Now retired, Santo started teaching at Trenton High in 1969, in the aftermath of the Trenton race riots.

While Santo painted an idyllic picture of his time at Trenton Central High, retired history teacher Chris Pullen said life wasn’t always easy, particularly in the years following the riots. Pullen recalled one time a group of students cornered him and Santo in a stairwell. One of the students kicked Santo.

“We had to face kids,” Pullen said. “When there were fights, he would always intervene. He wouldn’t run away from that. He would do the right thing.”

But Santo preferred to focus on the bright spots, like one former student who graduated high school, college and medical school early and became a doctor.

“There were a lot of great kids who went there, especially in the early years, when I was teaching humanities,” Santo said. “Today, they’re judges, doctors, lawyers. It’s a shame [Trenton High students] have this reputation, but believe me, I have nothing but the nicest things to say about the kids I taught in Trenton.”

Some of his students have equally dear memories. Pullen recalled a conversation with some painters working at his house several years ago. Somehow, Trenton High came up, and the painters said they had attended the school. They didn’t remember Pullen, but asked if “Mr. Santo” was still around.

“We loved that guy,” one of the painters said.

Santo said he tried to connect with his classes, and let his students know he wasn’t going to coast through the year. Santo attributed the good relationship he had with his students to this, saying the pupils were glad to work for a teacher who worked for them. Santo would even do extra research on the subjects he taught, Pullen said, hoping to provide students information and experience beyond the curriculum.

He would help students fill out their income tax forms. In one class called “Street Law,” Santo would ask his students to create their own crime, and hold a trial in class. They would have witnesses and a jury, along with defense and prosecution teams. In anthropology, Santo taught his students how humans used to make tools by having them chip rocks into rough instruments. The students would have fun sending small pieces of rock all over the floor of the classroom, but others didn’t look at Santo’s project so fondly.

“The janitors used to hate me,” Santo said.

Santo taught at Trenton High until 2004. Then, from 2004-08, he left the classroom to serve fulltime as the vice president of the Trenton Education Association. The last two years of his career, 2008-2010, Santo led the TEA as president.

Santo has lived in Hamilton for 44 years, has raised two children in the township and has devoted plenty of hours to township athletic organizations, such as Hamilton Township Recreation Baseball Association, Nottingham Little League, Hamilton Township Recreation Soccer Association and the Nottingham High School Booster Club.

He currently belongs to the Grounds For Sculpture and the Mercer County Retired Educators Association, and said enjoys reliving his teaching days speaking to students in Hamilton, particularly in the district’s Government and Law Related Experience classes.

But, aside from being a parent, he knows he has had no greater affect on the lives of others than he did as a teacher.

“Somewhere, in somebody’s life, for good or for bad, there was a teacher,” Santo said. “I’d like to hope mostly for good, but everybody is influenced in some way by a teacher. They might not want to admit of it, but they have. And that’s why I was always proud of that profession, proud to be called a teacher.”