Educational achievement is a common thread with Irene Bednarek Santo and her family members. Mrs. Santo was a valedictorian in high school, college and law school, and her younger sister, Teresa, became a White House fellow during President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Mrs. Santo’s daughter, Kristina, also became a valedictorian in high school before graduating with a doctorate in dental surgery from the University of Maryland. Mrs. Santo’s son, Ron, earned an MBA from Maryland, and her grandson, John Brent Nevy II, graduated from his high school in Pennsylvania with honors and is a freshman at University College London.
“Her life was lifted up through education and academics,” Ron Santo said. “So she encouraged others to follow the same trajectory. I think she hung her hat a little bit more on that than anything.”
Mrs. Santo, who grew up in Baltimore and worked as a law clerk for Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, died Oct. 2 of heart failure at her home in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania. She was 74.
Judge Moylan, who was the state’s attorney for Baltimore City from 1964 to 1970, when Mrs. Santo was a legal secretary in the office, said Mrs. Santo was an invaluable member of his legal team.
“She was an exemplar of what dedication and hard work plus some innate talent can do,” he said. “Irene was not simply a dedicated and loyal co-worker for essentially 30 years, but has been a dear family friend for a lifetime.”
The former Irene Bednarek was the eldest of three daughters born in Koblenz, Germany, to Polish Catholic parents Stanislaw Bednarek, a carpenter, and the former Genowefa Matusik, a seamstress. When their first child was 3 years old, Mr. and Mrs. Bednarek immigrated to the United States, initially living in Idaho before moving to Butchers Hill in East Baltimore.
Mr. Santo, a resident of Baldwin in northeast Baltimore County, recalled his mother describing her childhood as filled with love despite challenging circumstances.
“My grandparents were trying to build a life here and find work,” he said. “So my mother took care of herself and her two younger sisters. … When my grandparents were working all day, she fed them lunch and walked them to school. Teresa, the youngest, told me two days ago that when she had her first job, my mom knew she needed clothes for work. She didn’t have a lot, but she went down to Stewart & Co. [department store] in Baltimore City and bought several blouses and skirts.”
Mrs. Santo graduated from Seton High School (before it merged with Archbishop Keough to become Seton Keough High School) in 1964 as valedictorian of her class. While working as a legal secretary for the Baltimore City courts, she decided to enroll in night classes at the University of Baltimore and then the institution’s School of Law.
Although some co-workers encouraged Ms. Bednarek to pursue a career in law, Judge Moylan said she had an inner drive that was unrivaled.
“Her decision to get her undergraduate degree at night and to follow that with four years of law school, that was all her own,” he said. “She was working as a secretary in the state attorney’s office, and it was a pleasant surprise to find out that she knew the legal terms because she was working in law school at night during those very years.”
While working at the state’s attorney’s office, she met A. Ronald Santo, who was hired by Judge Moylan as an assistant state’s attorney. Their son said the attraction was immediate.
“My dad got swept off his feet,” he said. “He said, ‘I want to marry this person right away.’ But my mom made him wait until she graduated from law school and passed the bar. … She wanted to do right by her own standards before getting married.”
Mrs. Santo graduated as an undergraduate in 1966, ranked first in her class, and repeated that accomplishment in law school in 1970 out of 158 graduates in her class, which included only six women. “That was something then because in the late ’60s, we had not yet had the gender breakthrough,” Judge Moylan pointed out.
When Mrs. Santo graduated in June and passed the bar, Judge Moylan got word that he had been appointed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Calling it a “very fortunate confluence of events,” he hired Mrs. Santo as one of his law clerks.
“I was just lucky enough that she liked working there,” he quipped. “During that time, it would have been impossible to find anyone as talented as her and as dedicated as she was. If I tried to get an opinion out in a hurry, she wouldn’t let me send it out until she had edited it three or four times to make everything absolutely letter-perfect. She was just an absolute dream as a law clerk.”
The Santos married on Sept. 3, 1972, at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Baltimore and settled in the Ten Hills neighborhood of West Baltimore.
After her husband died suddenly of a heart attack in 1993, Mrs. Santo retired from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals the following year to concentrate on her children.
“Some of the best work my mother ever did as a person was when she retired from working to look after my sister and me to make sure that our family got through that sudden passing and take care of us and give us the education, love and nourishment, anything we needed,” Mr. Santo said. “In the last 27 years, my mom never remarried and never wanted to. She basically doubled down on my sister and me.”
Mr. Santo said he developed a stronger appreciation for his mother’s sacrifice when he became a father for the first time in November 2015. He and his mother FaceTimed daily so that she could see her grandchildren, and he estimated that 40% of the emails in his inbox over the past 12 years were correspondence between him and his mother.
“That’s what I will miss the most — the companionship, the friendship, the wisdom,” Mr. Santo said.
Mrs. Santo enjoyed accompanying her children and their families to Disney World, visiting the amusement resort seven times in the past nine years. At her viewing on Wednesday night, the connection between her and her grandchildren was prominently displayed in photographs and videos.
“She was my biggest cheerleader and my toughest critic,” her son said. “She really was my confidence. She encouraged me to be the best person I could be.”
A funeral for Mrs. Santo is scheduled for Friday at 11 a.m. at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Baltimore. She will be buried at St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Baltimore.
In addition to her son, Mrs. Santo is survived by one daughter, Dr. Kristina Santo Nevy of Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania; two sisters, Mary Widomski and Teresa Smith, both of Baltimore; and six grandchildren, with another granddaughter on the way.