Trust fall

A Southern California Mason takes the biggest leap of faith.

By Ian A Stewart

The people who know Rio Santonil best know him as a practical, rational, lowercase-C conservative. A father of three, former risk-management professional for Herbalife, and past elected recorder for the Al Malaikah Shriners, Santonil has a reputation for stability and trustworthiness that extends throughout Southern California, largely thanks to his role as president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Masonic Service Bureau. Or at least that’s how people used to know him, before he started flinging himself out of airplanes.

While others spent their year in lockdown trading sourdough starter or racking up miles on the Peloton, the usually reserved Santonil was compelled by an urge for action. And so, in September, he resolved to fulfill a lifetime goal and go skydiving.

And then he did it again. And again. And again.

Six months after that first bucket-list jump, Santonil has notched more than 55 skydives—enough to earn him a Class B license—with ambitions for more in the works. Frequently, he’ll do as many as five jumps in a single afternoon. “Some of the people I go with, they’ll do a jump before going to work,” Santonil says matter-of-factly. “I know it sounds weird. People are like, ‘What the hell, Rio? Are you having a midlife crisis?’”

Hardly, he says. Nor is it a case of the repressed adrenaline junkie within finally breaking through. Instead, Santonil describes his new obsession as a sort of spiritual awakening. “It’s a surreal experience,” he says. “Looking at the earth from that view, it’s like, ‘Oh, my god, it’s beautiful!’ You can see the curvature of the earth from that height.”

Faces of Fraternity

Three generations of Filipino American members bringing Masonry to life

While others may consider his new hobby a marked departure for such a buttoned-down sort, Santonil points out that for as frightening as jumping out of an airplane can seem, statistically it’s less risky than, say, riding a motorcycle. Before any jump, guides make sure you complete three different gear checks—twice on the ground and once in the plane. “You have to say, OK, I trust my instructor. He has family and loved ones, too,” Santonil says. 

In that way, Santonil sees a parallel between skydiving and Freemasonry. Both require supreme faith in those around you. “It’s the same premise,” he says. “You have a community that supports you and guides you. When you jump, you have people looking out for you.”

Within Freemasonry, Santonil says, that kind of support has helped him grow both personally and professionally. Born in the city of Olongapo, in the Philippines, he immigrated at age 9 with his family to Carson, where he’s lived ever since. Years later, a work acquaintance suggested he visit Torrance University No. 394, and he was intrigued; his father and grandfather had both been Masons in the Philippines, though neither spoke much about the affiliation. In early 1999, Santonil applied to become a member, and by July of that year he’d been raised as a Master Mason. He took quickly to the group, volunteering for several roles in the lodge. Within a few years, he’d moved through each elected office, becoming lodge master in 2006 and again in 2009.

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“When I first joined, I was scared to speak in front of groups—even small groups,” he says. But he found himself growing more confident in the lodge setting. “What I’ve really enjoyed is the personal development. The camaraderie within the fraternity really resonated with me.” So he dove headlong into the craft. In addition to Torrance University Lodge, he joined Metropolitan No. 352, was a charter member for Oasis No. 854, and became highly active in the appendant bodies. His list of Masonic titles is more than two pages long.

Within each of those groups, Santonil says, he’s been moved by the bonds of friendship, generosity, and trust that exist between members—traits he’s also encountered in the close-knit community of skydivers. Still, all the support in the world can only get you to the edge of the platform. You still have to take the plunge. “It’s hard to comprehend unless you do it,” he says. “The first time, it’s sensory overload, for sure. Words alone can’t really explain what you feel when you jump out.”

The mind-shift he’s experienced through skydiving has forced Santonil to update his bucket list. Now, he says, he’s eager to jump at some of the world’s most iconic locations, including in Dubai, the Swiss Alps, and, someday, over the pyramids in Egypt. One thing he knows not to do is bring his family along for the ride. “My wife is a nurse,” Santonil offers with a chuckle. “If you think I’m conservative, my wife is next-level. And my kids, they just think, You’re crazy, Dad.”

Courtesy of Rio Santonil

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