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Sherri Richards, Published August 07 2012

Finding gratitude in difficulty: Di Leo to sign books in Fargo

If you go

Sal Di Leo will hold two book signings in Fargo on Aug. 25. He will sign copies of his book “Did I Ever Thank You, Sister?” from 10 a.m. to noon at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 1201 42nd St. S., Fargo, and from 1 to 3 p.m. at Zandbroz Variety, 420 Broadway, Fargo. Proceeds from books sold at the Zandbroz signing will be donated to an area charity.

Online: www.salsbook.net

FARGO – Sal Di Leo just wanted to get his story down on paper, to make sense of the time he’d spent in a Catholic orphanage with his siblings. Putting the events of that decade in order helped him connect the dots of his life, he says.

The Twin Cities man didn’t intend to publish his memoir as a book, but he says too many people told him it was an amazing story. In 1999, he self-published “Did I Ever Thank You, Sister?” and set up a website to sell it online. The first copies sold were pages bound by Kinko’s.

Now his paperback is receiving new life, published as an e-book last spring, and has given Di Leo new direction.

“I’m spending most of my time doing what I love to do most, speaking around the country about my book and my life, and raising money for nonprofits,” he says.

Di Leo recently worked for the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota, and established a physical office for the agency in Fargo, but illness forced him to resign last year.

As he recovered in the fall, he began to volunteer and do contract consulting. In May, Di Leo helped Charles Hall Youth Services, a community-based foster care agency in Bismarck, with its fundraising efforts and spoke at its annual donor recognition brunch.

The experience led him to realize he wanted to use his skills in corporate sponsorship, partnerships and media relations to enhance fundraising efforts for organizations around the country that do foster care and help children with special needs, both physical and learning. Proceeds from the sale of his book also go to groups like these.

“Our kids are him and his brother and sisters,” says Gayla Sherman, co-executive director of Charles Hall Youth Services. “He wants to help … He’s been a real support. He genuinely cares about people who are in this line of work.

“You get the sense when you’re with him he wants to make sure he gets it done before he dies. He’s doing all he can do to really make a difference in the world, to leave a footprint not for his glory but because it’s the right thing to do,” Sherman says.

Di Leo says people get dealt a bad hand every day. The key is learning, growing and getting back up when you get knocked down.

“You have to want to get up, and be grateful for the people who helped you, and reach out to help,” he says.

In 1963, a 9-year-old Sal, his brother Mario and sisters Kitty and Maria were placed in the Guardian Angel Home orphanage by their mother. Their father had run off for good that year. They were the four youngest in a family of 12 kids.

Di Leo returned to the Joliet, Ill., orphanage in 1998, a visit that sets the framework for his book. In its chapters, he vividly recalls his interactions with the nuns, fistfights with other boys, some difficult years at Nebraska’s Boys Town, failed and successful business ventures and positive influences in his life.

His reflections while parked outside the Guardian Angel Home led him to feelings of gratitude.

Since the completion of “Did I Ever Thank You, Sister?” Di Leo says he’s made new life discoveries that lend themselves to a possible second book, a continuation of his story.

Part of that continuation is Saint Francis Lodge, a private retreat center he and his wife built on the shores of Lake George, between Park Rapids and Bemidji, Minn. They open the rustic lodge and chapel to the Sisters of St. Francis – the order in charge of the Joliet orphanage – as well as nuns from Richardton, N.D. Di Leo also makes it available to people he knows going through difficult times, or people he feels are doing “great work.”

Notes written in the retreat center’s journal describe “how this little place transforms people,” and helps them connect with God and themselves, Di Leo says.

The message he wants to get out is one of hope guided by God, he says.

“There’s such a need for hope in the world right now. Everybody’s scared. And hope really comes from God. But the reality is so many people don’t believe in God or God is really helping them right now,” Di Leo says.

“I want people to feel empowered,” he adds. “You can get through this by forgiving the people who hurt you and by being grateful to the people who helped you.”