Michael Zito, a career state worker who was dedicated to creating and running effective public programs for children in need, died June 10 of pancreatic cancer, his family said. He was 60.
Influenced by the activism and idealism of his generation, Mr. Zito aspired to make a difference in the lives of less fortunate people. After graduating from Sonoma State University in the 1970s, he started as a psychiatric technician at Sonoma Developmental Center and worked with developmentally disabled children at North Bay Regional Center in Napa.
He joined the state Department of Developmental Services in 1988 and was instrumental in setting up Early Start, a federal program that provides services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities. After 10 years, he turned his attention to economically disadvantaged youngsters as the state Department of Education’s liaison officer for Head Start, a federal program that provides early-childhood education, health and parent involvement services for low-income families.
A proud public servant, Mr. Zito was passionate about government efforts to improve conditions for vulnerable people. A likeable, charming guy with a strong knowledge of public programs, he formed professional relationships easily and built partnerships among diverse service providers and local, state and federal agencies to meet the educational, health and nutritional needs of disadvantaged children.
“He was the ultimate good guy,” said Camille Maben, former director of child development at the Department of Education. “He listened well, and he was articulate. He had a very realistic view about what could be done, but he always thought about what was best for kids and their families.”
The son of a computer programmer and a bank trainer, Mr. Zito was born Aug. 12, 1953, and raised in Glendale. In college, he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in New York in 1972.
He was married to wife Susanne for 22 years and lived in Curtis Park. He retired with 34 years of state service after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012.
Mr. Zito was a witty, easygoing man who loved telling stories and spending time with family and friends. He was a lively conversationalist who devoured large amounts of news from sources as diverse as the New York Times and The Sacramento Bee, “PBS NewsHour” and “The Daily Show.” Handsome and athletic, he ran seven days a week for 30 years and remained active while receiving chemotherapy with a daily routine of 3-mile walks and 150 pushups, his wife said.
“He was a charming guy with a tender heart, and he understood that not everybody was born in this world with the same opportunities that he had,” said Ed Condon of the National Head Start Association. “He had a passion for goodness and justice.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Zito is survived by his daughter, Cristina; his mother, Gerry Abbott; a sister, Debey; and three brothers, Tony Zito, Eric Abbott and Jason Abbott.
A memorial is set for 1 p.m. July 13 at Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento. Memorial donations may be made to Point Reyes National Seashore Association.