Former GVH CEO now writing children’s books

It’s Bright at Night in Crested Butte now available at Townie Books

By Katherine Nettles

After a long career in healthcare leadership, former Gunnison Valley Health (GVH) CEO Rob Santilli retired in 2022 and has since turned to his creative side and published three children’s books. His latest, It’s Bright at Night in Crested Butte, was released last month and is now available at Townie Books. 

It’s Bright at Night in Crested Butte is geared toward children aged five to 10 years old and, as Santilli describes, “it incorporates mystery, a child’s inquisitive nature and the mystique of Crested Butte.” It also celebrates our deep, dark skies which show an immeasurable number of stars, and earned the nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison River an International Dark Sky designation in 2015.

As he settles into his new post-career life, Santilli says he is as surprised as anyone at his new authorship, but has found retirement to be a gift for reconnecting with family and finding new creative outlets as well as honing his outdoor sporting skills.  

Santilli moved to the Gunnison Valley in 2012 from Philadelphia, where he had enjoyed a prestigious 27-year career running a major $3 billion health system. He then took on the GVH hospital and health system with a budget of about $60 million, which was struggling financially and about six months from having to declare bankruptcy. 

“Looking back, I recall writing a letter in 2012 to the GVH board chair and offered my years of healthcare leadership along with a lifelong dream to live in the valley,” he says. When he was offered the CEO position, however, he quickly learned that GVH was in dire straits. Despite his success in Philadelphia, “I never imagined how demanding it would be to transition a rural hospital/healthcare system like GVH. What kept me going were the amazing opportunities to reimagine healthcare and build a model for the future with so many talented individuals.” 

He spent nine years at GVH, and feels his time there helped set the hospital system on a better track. Santilli helped GVH earn a Top 100 Critical Access Hospital recognition nine times from the Chartis Center for Rural Health during his tenure. “Our success was unparalleled and prepared us to be a model for the state during the COVID years,” he says.

But he acknowledges that the work came with a cost. “And for me it was giving up long-time relationships to devote 100% of my focus on GVH,” he says.

 After getting through COVID and feeling the local health system was strong, Santilli announced he was ready to pass the torch.  

“Retirement was an opportunity to reconnect and rekindle those relationships. My first stop within days of leaving GVH was visiting family in my east coast hometown and getting to know my five-year-old grandson Jackson. 

“I was admittedly surprised the first night Jackson said, ‘Papa Bob, will you tell me a bedtime story?’” Santilli said this quickly led to a nightly story, and the stories continued via Facetime when he returned home to Gunnison. “Probably nothing made me happier than to see his wonderous expressions during story time,” he reflects. “It occurred to me how much fun it would be to write a children’s book with Jackson and his Jack Russell Terrier Ollie as the main characters.”

Santilli’s first two books, The Miracle of Rose Tree Festival of Lights, set during COVID, and his second book, Kids Can Do Anything, feature his grandson and are both available online at Amazon. Santilli describes how they each came to fruition. 

“COVID had just ended, so I wanted to give a perspective of what our children experienced going from endless play to the lights going out in Jackson’s little town as shops closed. Then the innocence and power of children bring people together and reclaim the value of community,” he says of his first published book. “Being in health care, I could not resist the sub-story of casting Jackson’s mom as an ER physician. Not understanding why his mom was gone, he later realizes his mom was a hero.” It ended up selling a few thousand copies. 

The second book developed as Santilli reveled at what kids can do at a young age, from learning languages, to progressing quickly at new outdoor activities where adults flounder. “With some research, I discovered that there is real science on the child’s young brain and their ability to master so much when given the exposure,” he says. “The story embraces the camaraderie of children as they teach each other their skills,” says Santilli. 

His latest book came about as Santilli experienced his first year of retirement and the gift of seemingly endless snow. “I continued to be amazed by these images. That prompted me to think how cool it would be to write a book about Jackson coming to Crested Butte to visit his Papa Bob and being overwhelmed by the snow. Incorporate some real pics of our wonderous mountain town, add a mystery theme, and we have the perfect Crested Butte children’s book.”

The book was released earlier this month and is being featured in Townie Books bookstore. Santilli says he hopes the book gives everyone who visits the area lasting memories and inspires other professionals transitioning to a new chapter in life as well.

“There were so many things that crossed my mind as I approached retirement. I think it is a message to all those entering retirement to realize you now have time to do something you never imagined,” he says. 

“I never imagined writing a children’s book, but then I have come to learn that retirement is like getting a special key. A key that will open doors with the gift of time and allow your imagination to come to life,” says Santilli. “Your opportunities are endless.”

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