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Death Notice Guestbook

Obituary: Mike Sajna / Writer, outdoorsman, remembered as a good friend to many

Saturday, August 12, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Mike Sajna was a man of words. Sure, he was an outdoorsman, an outdoors writer for the Post-Gazette. But as much as he enjoyed a good day in nature, whether it meant catching fish or not, he reveled in the language -- writing it and reading it.

He wrote the last of his five books while battling leukemia, and this one strayed a bit beyond his outdoors element: "Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend." It was met with a positive review written by free-lance correspondent Marilyn A. Posner and published Thursday in the newspaper that had employed him the last three years.

Minutes after his wife, Lisa, read the review to him, Mr. Sajna succumbed to the leukemia that plagued him for 22 months. He died in his North Huntingdon home. He was 49.

"I truly believe he was holding on until he heard the review of his book," Lisa Sajna said.

While pronouncing his name confounded Post-Gazette readers (it's Shine-ah), they seemed to enjoy his words nevertheless. The sports department received calls almost daily during his illness, inquiring about his health, wishing him well. Mr. Sajna also received a large amount of cards and calls and e-mails.

"I'm sure he'll be missed by his readers and the sporting community in Western Pennsylvania," said George Venesky, a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

"He brought passion, thoroughness and a level of expertise to outdoors coverage that the Post-Gazette had never before enjoyed," added Fritz Huysman, the Post-Gazette's assistant managing editor/sports. "Our readers are very demanding and have never been shy about voicing their complaints. After Mike was hired [in December 1997] the outdoors complaints stopped -- completely. While I believe he loved fishing the most, he was also an avid hunter and a guardian of the environment. He was truly blessed in that he loved his job. This is a huge loss for our readers and all of us at the Post-Gazette."

Michael E. Sajna Jr. was born Nov. 25, 1950, in Mount Pleasant during a blizzard. He took up fishing and hunting from his father, Mike, in their community of Standard Shaft.

After graduating from Mount Pleasant High in 1969 and California State University in 1973, he wound up in Key West, Fla., following the footsteps of hero Ernest Hemingway. He vacationed on the island that Hemingway did. He lived near Hemingway's house. He pored over Hemingway's works.

"I'd be in the water snorkeling, and he'd be reading," said friend Robert "Tug" Dragovitch, a college buddy who lived with Mr. Sajna there. "He'd drag me all these places, and I was running along there with him, the illiterate.

"But that was it. He knew."

What Mr. Sajna knew, was that like Hemingway, he wanted to camp and hunt and fish and write, all in one.

Mr. Sajna went to work for Western Pennsylvania newspapers: The Standard-Observer of Irwin, the McKeesport Daily News, the Valley News Dispatch and the University Times at Pitt.

"Reporters are often forced to write about controversial issues and to interview people who don't really want to be interviewed. As a result, sometimes reporters make enemies," said Nancy Brown, his editor at the University of Pittsburgh faculty and staff newspaper from 1993-97.

"Mike could ask tough questions, but not only did he not make enemies at Pitt, he very frequently made friends. ... That went from the custodian in our building to the chancellor of the university. I don't think there was anybody who ever met Mike who didn't become friends with him."

"People at the university loved and respected Mike," said Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who inadvertently helped to seal Mr. Sajna's hiring at the Post-Gazette when he spotted one of his books in the office of Post-Gazette Editor John G. Craig Jr. and began raving about him.

"He was a warm and caring human being," said Nordenberg. "One sign of his caring side is, when he was ill, he worried about me -- that I was working too much and had too many responsibilities. He said, 'I got to get you out fishing.' Unfortunately, we never did."

While writing the news and issue stories at Pitt, Mr. Sajna made time to compose free-lance outdoors articles for magazines nationally and locally, including Pittsburgh Magazine and the Greensburg Tribune-Review's Focus. He also became a published author: "Pennsylvania Trout and Salmon Fishing Guide" in 1988; "Buck Fever: The Deer Hunting Tradition in Pennsylvania" in 1990; "Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation" in 1992; "Days on the Water: The Angling Tradition in Pennsylvania" in 1999; and "Crazy Horse" this year.

He completed the last two books during his two bouts with acute mycelogenous leukemia, which was first detected in August 1998. After an intensive treatment schedule that included a bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy at UPMC-Shadyside and Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Mr. Sajna returned to his Wednesday-Sunday column routine at the Post-Gazette -- again telling his readers about more than just a good place to drop a line or find deer, but about conservation, endangered species, Game Commission politics, poachers, whatever.

"It was all-important to him in his columns to be providing some useful and interesting information all the time," said friend Jim Schafer, a photographer who worked with him on the "Allegheny River" book. "He would say, 'I have to get something in here people can use or something they didn't know about.' Not just, 'I went fishing last week and had a good day.' He took it seriously."

Then, in September 1999, doctors found a few, rare leukemia cells. Mr. Sajna was stuck indoors and battling again, tied to tubes pumping medicine. The last of his 200-plus columns appeared in April.

He told his wife his three proudest accomplishments were helping to raise niece Becky Cook of Irwin for 10 years, his deep and long-standing friendships, and his five books.

In addition to his parents, Mike and Leona of Standard Shaft, he is survived by his wife, Lisa Baxter Sajna of North Huntingdon, whom he married Sept. 17, 1999; and two stepdaughters, Lacy Thomas and Lindsay Thomas.

He was preceded in death by a brother, Richard Sajna, who was killed in an auto accident Aug. 6, 1976.

Visitation is from 7 to 9 p.m. today and from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at Galone-Caruso Funeral Home Inc., 204 Eagle St., Mount Pleasant. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Monday in Visitation Church, Mount Pleasant.

Burial will be in Visitation Parish Cemetery, Mount Pleasant.

The family requests that donations be made to a conservation organization.

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