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August 31, 2000

OBITUARY: Mike Sajna

As a boy, Mike Sajna roamed the woods around his family's home in tiny Standard Shaft, Pa., pretending to be Natty Bumppo from James Fenimore Cooper's "Leather-Stocking Tales."

After graduating from California State University of Pennsylvania in 1973, Sajna retraced the footsteps of his new hero, Ernest Hemingway. Sajna spent a summer in Spain and six months in Key West, Fla., poring over the works of the newspaperman-turned-author who hunted, fished and wrote passionately about the outdoors.

After writing five books of his own and thousands of newspaper and magazine stories, many about the outdoors, Sajna reached the end of his 49-year journey on Aug. 10, 2000, succumbing to the leukemia he had battled for nearly two years.

He died in his North Huntington home, shortly after his wife of 11 months, Lisa Baxter Sajna, read him a positive Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of his last book, "Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend." Sajna had been a Post-Gazette outdoors writer for the past two and a half years. From 1993 to 1997, he was a reporter for the University Times.

"Mike was the best," said Fritz Huysman, Post-Gazette assistant managing editor/sports. "Our readers are very demanding, and they aren't shy about voicing their displeasure. After we hired Mike [in December 1997] the complaints we'd been receiving from our outdoors readers stopped. We even started getting phone calls and letters to the editor, thanking us for the great outdoors coverage."

Sajna worked for the Standard-Observer in Irwin, the McKeesport Daily News and the Valley News Dispatch before joining the University Times staff in 1993. Among those Sajna interviewed for the University Times was Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. "Mike presented a wonderful combination of professional commitment and human kindness," the chancellor said. "He always was true to the facts, respectful of ideas and courteous."

Nordenberg said he accidently learned of Sajna's outdoors writing while in a bookstore admiring Sajna's 1992 book, "Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation." The chancellor said he has a special interest in the subject because his wife, Nikki, is from northwestern Pennsylvania near the river's headwaters. "Only after paging through the book and enjoying it did I look at the front cover and see that it was Mike's book."

After the two became friends, Sajna began urging the chancellor to go fishing. "Mike said he was worried about the responsibilities of my position and suggested fishing would be a great escape for me. That was a reflection of the kind of person Mike was, that even when he was battling a disease he would worry about someone else. We never did get out fishing together. But to tell you the truth, even talking about it with him was something of an escape for me."

During a 1997 meeting with Post-Gazette editor John Craig, Nordenberg noticed Sajna's "Allegheny River" book on Craig's desk. Nordenberg praised the book and its author, prompting Craig to confide that he was considering Sajna for the outdoors writer job.

"All of us hated to lose Mike from the Pitt community," Nordenberg said, "but it was just the kind of opportunity he had been looking for."

Although Sajna didn't attend classes at Pitt, he loved the University, Lisa Sajna said. She recalled that when her daughter, Lacy Thomas, said she was unhappy as a freshman at Ohio University, "Mike in his quiet way encouraged Lacy to consider transferring to the University of Pittsburgh. He knew she would be happy with the academic quality at Pitt, the social life and the pizzazz of the city." This week, Lacy began classes here as a sophomore.

In addition to his wife and stepdaughter, Sajna is survived by another stepdaughter, Lindsay Thomas; his parents, Michael and Leona Rusenko Sajna of Standard Shaft; and a goddaughter, Rebecca Cook, of Irwin.

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

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 1

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