In sickness and in health: Oceanside widower raises $1 million for students affected by cancer

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Thirteen years after his wife died of breast cancer, an Ocean-side man has raised over a million dollars to support students whose parents have cancer or who have died of the disease.

His name is Joe Satriano, but the name he wants remembered is Susan, his late wife and the namesake of his charity, the Susan Satriano Memorial Scholarship Foundation, which he started in 2006.

Last year, he helped 241 high school students; this year, he is helping 261 teenagers, who each receive $300 scholarships. Over the past 12 years, he has helped more than 1,500 students from Oceanside and across the United States.

Last Friday evening, Satriano and Seaford High School held the first Walk of Lights on the school grounds to raise more money. “If Sue were here tonight, she’d tell you all that you did a mitzvah,” Satriano said moments before cutting a pink ribbon that stretched across the track to open the event. More than a hundred people walked in memory of a family member or friend with the disease, placing paper-bag luminarias around the track to honor their loved ones.

Satriano met his future wife in 1973, at Brooklyn College. They were both 24 and in graduate school, and they shared a class together. “It was the only D she ever got. She said it was because she was distracted by me,” Satriano laughed, adding, “But I got an A.” He initially had no clue that Susan was interested in him, but they married three years later.

“You know how sweet sugar is? That was Sue, in every way,” Satriano said. She was a good wife and mother, he said, and the two worked as math teachers. “We had a lot of fun,” Satriano said, “even when she was diagnosed.” In 1992, the couple received the news: Susan, 40, had breast cancer. Satriano stopped teaching to care for her and to spend as much time as possible with her.

“We dealt with it through love and laughter,” he said. Although there were rough days, he added, the Satrianos got through them. Although their children, Matthew and Justin, knew the suffering their mother endured, the grim possibility of death was never talked about, he said “because we didn’t think Sue was going to die.”

Despite a five-year remission, Susan died at 53 after a 13-year battle with the disease. Six months after the loss, Satriano said he remained curled up under blankets, crying and missing the love he lost in the bedroom they once shared. But during that time, he had an epiphany. “I wasn’t doing anything under those covers in our bed,” he said. “And I was no longer teaching, but I realized there was another way to help kids.”

Satriano began the foundation for three reasons: to keep Susan’s memory alive; to create direction, purpose and hope for himself; and to help young people.

“I don’t turn anyone down,” he said, describing the interview process for selecting scholarship recipients. He will either meet with candidates in person if they are local, or by video chat if not. Each candidate must have a parent or caretaker who is suffering from, survived or died of cancer. “They, unfortunately, meet the requirements,” he said. They also must be graduating from high school and attending college the following fall.

During the interviews, Satriano said, he will share his story first with the students, and then usually they will share theirs. “I’ll say things that spark memories for them, and then they’ll say things that spark memories for me,” he said.

Often, the scholarship winners will write letters to Satriano thanking him, and he said many of them go on to become doctors and nurses. “They’re my heroes,” he said.

On June 7, seven Oceanside High School students were awarded scholarships from the foundation at its annual awards ceremony. Satriano gave his speech, well practiced at this point, saying, “Take a moment and look to your left and right. Chances are one of those people are dealing with the pain and suffering from breast cancer.”

Satriano, who was the Oceanside Herald’s 2011 Person of the Year, had a memoir written documenting the life and love he and Susan shared, called “In Sickness and in Health.” All of the proceeds from the book’s sales go to the foundation. He is having a second book printed, entitled “Aftermath.”

“Mainly, it helps me to see he’s doing OK,” his son Matthew told the Herald. He added that his father’s outgoing personality is a big factor in fundraising. Matthew recalled a recent trip to Washington, D.C., during which his father sat next to a stranger on the train and told her his life story. The woman returned the gesture. The two never even exchanged names.

Matthew did not want his father to become a “shut-in” after his mother died, and said that his mom asked that the family take a month to grieve, but afterward to enjoy one another’s company. They did, Matthew said. “She would be happy not only that he is giving back, but that he’s doing OK,” he noted.

Satriano said he likes to tell a story about how worried he was when his other son, Justin, came home a few years ago and opened with, “Don’t be mad at me,” and followed with, “I made you an OKCupid profile.” Although Satriano said he did not resort to online dating, he has gone on a few dates.

“It’s great that he’s out there doing things and helping people . . . He’s discovered newfound meaning in life,” Justin said, recalling how his father developed a stress-related condition after his mother’s diagnosis, and how distraught he was after her death.

Justin said that his dad cares deeply about preserving his mom’s memory, and that he is proud of him. He said his father isn’t afraid to put himself out there for the foundation, adding, “He’s quite tenacious.”