Willamette law school’s trailblazer

by Cliff Collins,

Danny Santos, Willamette Law’s associate dean of student affairs and former counsel to four Oregon governors, was an Oregon trailblazer long before he was honored as one.

When Daniel P. “Danny” Santos J.D.’86 was growing up in Southern California's Imperial Valley, his father encouraged him and his brother to learn the value of hard physical labor by having them work in the agricultural fields during the summers.

His father’s motivation came from his own background as a Latino farm worker and his wife’s desire to impress upon their sons the importance of pursuing an education.

It worked. Today Santos is the associate dean of student affairs for Willamette University College of Law, having put himself through college and law school, working for four governors, and developing a passion for promoting education and diversity. Most recent among his many honors is recognition in 2015 with the inaugural Literacy Trailblazer Award from the Mid-Valley Literacy Center, a faith-based non-profit committed to helping adults reach literacy levels needed to enhance their lives.

Santos was a trailblazer long before he started serving on the board of the Literacy Center. After graduating from high school and attending Imperial Valley College for two years, he followed a high school classmate to attend Southern Oregon University in Ashland where he was one of the very few Latino students there at the time.

Santos majored in criminology, envisioning a forensics career with a big law enforcement agency like the FBI. But none would hire him because of his myopia, and he returned to SOU to earn his teaching certificate. That’s when he received his first exposure to working with migrant students.

"It got me started with education," he says, “Seeing what an education can do for you -- not just for Latino students, but for every student—-made an impact."

Soon he discovered the value of the law as well. While working in Salem as director of the Oregon Migrant Education Service Center, Santos served as a citizen lobbyist, meeting lawyers and government employees. He became interested in going to law school and after applying for and being accepted by law schools in all three West Coast states, he chose to remain in Salem and earn his law degree at Willamette.

Once again, Santos was one of few Latino students. He was elected student body president in both his first and second years of law school, and after passing the bar, worked for the law school in affirmative action.

Santos has spent most of his professional life in state government, serving for more than 24 years in the administrations of four different governors: Neil Goldschmidt, Barbara Roberts, John Kitzhaber and Ted Kulongoski. His duties were widely varied in all four administrations, ranging from serving as a policy adviser to being legal counsel to both Roberts and Kitzhaber during Kitzhaber's first stint as governor. He loved the work, though he admits it was often draining and pressure-packed, and he appreciated being able to bring to his jobs his passion for promoting educational opportunities.

He also appreciated the role of others in touching his life. One of Santos' regular responsibilities under Kulongoski was coordinating with affected families the governor's attendance at Oregonians' military funerals. "It was a lot of work, but to this day it is one of the greatest privileges I've had," Santos says.

Kulongoski and the Honorable Paul De Muniz, former chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, spoke at the presentation of Santos' Trail Blazer Award.

"I have great respect for him," says Kulongoski. "He never forgot who he is and where he came from. Danny has a tremendous capacity for empathy for people," which is an unusual quality for someone who has achieved as much as Santos has, he adds. "He is a good person, a kind and gentle man."

After Santos' service in Roberts' administration, the two became friends. Later she gave talks at dinners he held for minority law students.

"I was so impressed with his commitment to these students," she recalls. "I never knew him when he wasn't involved in helping students and helping them carve out a future path to success. He has put himself through college and law school, and used that in a way that served others."

The fact that he worked for four governors also is noteworthy in itself. Most new administrations bring in their own people, Roberts and Kulongoski point out, but Santos’ abilities transcended politics.

After his government service ended, Santos was pleased to be invited to return to Willamette’s College of Law as an associate dean. He values his continuing relationships with many of his mentors and former colleagues. “I didn’t know it at the time, but my mentors were great in connecting the dots,” he reflects. “That’s still what we try to do today to help young people realize their potential as lawyers.”

It’s the opportunities with students that he values now. "Government functions at the 30,000-feet level, seldom at the ground level,” he observes. “In this job, you are at the ground level. It's totally enriching to see students work their way through their legal education."