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The Dallas Morning News

A Feast Of Kindness Though Man Sold Bill-Y-Bob's, His Generosity Still On Menu


1 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Dallas Morning News. All rights reserved.

CELINA - Everyone knows the place to pick up town gossip is Bill-y-Bob's Cantina. It's where farmers head for coffee before sunrise. Where retirees wander in throughout the day to tell war stories they've never shared with their families. Where people usually too proud to ask for help talk about their problems.The regulars sit at two preferred tables at the front - one marked Liars Table #1 and the other Liars Table #2. The "cafe," as it's called around here, is so informal patrons feel comfortable and not put upon to grab their own silverware or refill their coffee cups.

Founder Bob Santiago's presence is more like that of a grandfather making sure everyone gets enough to eat than a business owner concerned with profit. Running the cafe made Mr. Santiago well known to those who live here, but his generosity has given him near legendary status in this tiny northwest Collin County town.

So friends and patrons weren't surprised when Mr. Santiago, 64, made an unusual stipulation when he sold Bill-y-Bob's in mid-January. New owner Veronica Rodriguez had to promise to keep the heart of the place beating, to continue feeding eight local men who eat for free at the cafe.

"I asked if she could do it, and she agreed," Puerto Rico native Mr. Santiago said with a shrug. "It was a verbal condition."

The men come in at breakfast and lunch, and it wasn't unusual for Mr. Santiago to send them home with doggie bags for dinner.

"You know what he did?" Celina native Hugh Stone, 84, said at the mention of Mr. Santiago's name. "He fixed it so I could still eat for free. He's a good one."

Mr. Stone, another of Celina's generous souls who ran the town's unofficial food bank for years, lost his house in a fire last fall. Mr. Santiago has helmed the effort to rebuild his home, holding a catfish dinner at the cafe to raise money and seeking volunteers to work on the house. He also started the Hugh Stone Fund that has collected tens of thousands of dollars from people all over the country.

If any money is left over after the Stones' house is rebuilt, Mr. Santiago hopes the fund can remain in place to help other Celina residents in need.

"I don't want it to stop. I want it to keep going for whoever needs it," Mr. Santiago said. "A lot of people are proud, and they don't want to ask. But it seems like in here, everything leaks out. We find out about who has problems and who needs our help."

J.C. Ownsby, a farmer whose grandfather moved to Celina in 1880, called Mr. Santiago "a great fella." He's eaten at Bill-y-Bob's since it opened. "He's got a lot of friends here."

Though he sold the cafe, Mr. Santiago is still there at 6 a.m. most days for coffee and chitchat with the farmers.

"When I sit out here, I'm restless," he said while sitting in the dining room rather than cooking in the kitchen. "I know it's not my place. I can't help it."

Mr. Santiago moved to Celina 13 years ago - about three years after he and his wife, Donna, bought land three miles outside of town. He spent years traveling the country as a troubleshooter for restaurants. After selling the restaurant, he invested money in a McKinney gym with his daughter. Now, he spends his days at the cafe and working around his home. He will begin fishing daily in the pond outside his house as spring creeps closer. He may also earn his GED. He quit high school his senior year, a move he calls "stupid."

Vickie Boggs, a waitress at the cafe for six years, said Mr. Santiago spends a lot of time figuring out how he can be of more help.

"He's a good man, tenderhearted. He'll do anything for you. Ask anybody," Ms. Boggs said, still rolling her eyes at Mr. Santiago's mock jabs. "I think he's going to get back what he gives."

Mr. Santiago said he's simply repaying a debt of kindness given to his family when he was a teenager. His family lost everything but their lives when they jumped from their apartment window to escape a fire.

Neighbors and a local church gave Mr. Santiago, his parents and five siblings a place to stay, food, money and clothes.

"That's why I want to help ... so much," he said.

Mr. Santiago said he's already gotten what he wants in life. Opening a restaurant was a lifelong dream. And life is full with his wife, three children and nine grandchildren, with another on the way.

He has lived on both coasts, in the South, other Texas cities and Puerto Rico, until age 10. But he's never felt more at home than in Celina.

"This little town has changed my life," Mr. Santiago said, stirring three creams into his coffee. "I've lived in big cities, and it seemed like nobody knew you and you knew nobody.

"Here, if you need something, they help."

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