Santo's legacy reaches beyond the diamond

Baseball player and broadcaster are the monikers most people associated with Ron Santo.

But a legion of others knew the legendary Chicago Cubs third baseman for his work fundraising for juvenile diabetes research.

When Lauren Hermsen of Gurnee was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of 2, her grandfather called Santo to gain an understanding of what the diagnosis meant.

“He was the only person my family knew who had diabetes,” a now-17-year-old Lauren Hermsen said.

“He always told me that we were going to find a cure before he died,” she said. “So I always thought, he's not going to die, because there's not a cure yet.”

Away from the baseball diamond, Santo has helped make the Illinois chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation one of the most recognized charities in the state. An annual series of fundraising walks held throughout the region raises more money for the Illinois group than any of the other 80 nationwide chapters. In the 32 years the event has existed, officials said more than $60 million has been raised. This year's event is expected to tally more than $5 million. The walkathon bears Santo's name nowadays.

Santo, 70, died Wednesday due to complications from bladder cancer.

Hermsen stayed home from school Friday after learning of Santo's death. She said the news contributed to a spike in her blood sugar levels Friday morning.

“He was her first role model,” Lauren Hermsen's mother Julie said through tears. “I hope he knew how much he means to her.”

While studying in London Friday, Kady Helme sent a text message to her mother Kassy in Western Springs. Kady, now 20, was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 5.

“Why didn't anyone tell me Ron Santo died?” read Kady's text message. “I am so sad.”

Mike Reeg also choked up recalling how he had to tell his 11-year-old son Jack, who also suffers from diabetes, that Santo died Friday morning before the boy headed off for school.

“We said a prayer and talked about it,” the Downers Grove father said. “We haven't gotten to talk about it much yet, but I'll make sure that Jack understands he didn't die from diabetes to keep him positive.”

Patrick Reedy, executive director of the Illinois Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation chapter, said Santo's death was a great loss to many families in the area.

“He could almost immediately disarm these kids by talking to them about their diabetes,” Reedy said. “His message was always that there are so many more tools and greater technology than what he had when he was diagnosed. I don't think anyone can replace Ron and what he's done for juvenile diabetes.”

Santo was diagnosed with the disease that causes the body to improperly regulate its blood sugar level when he was 18. In his later years, his lower legs had to be amputated due to complications related to diabetes. There are more than 20 million people in the U.S. who have the disease, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Santo was a fixture at the multiple fundraising walks held in October each year throughout the region. He would spend hours at each site greeting children with whom he shared a kinship through diabetes.

Ron Rhode of Burr Ridge knew his 17-year-old daughter Cori was affected by the news of Santo's death, because she called him early Friday to inform him of the news.

“I got a call at six in the morning from her, so I knew it really threw her,” he said. “She sure thought the world of him.”

Parents of children with diabetes said Santo was more than just a famous baseball player to their kids.

“My daughter's 17 and could care less about baseball,” said Colleen Monson of Hawthorn Woods. “She not only lost a friend today, she lost someone who gave her hope and gave her inspiration. My mother lives in Pittsburgh, and she doesn't understand why it's such an emotional train wreck day for our family.”

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Legendary Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, top left, presented the Helme family of Western Springs an award for having the most participants at a 1998 charity walk. Daughter Kady Helme, bottom right, was diagnosed with the disease when she was 5 and the rest of the family, brother Joey, mother Kassy and father Joe also participate in the annual event. Courtesy of the Helme family