Stephen Casai, age 64, died of a brain tumor Wednesday at 5:45 p.m. at the Hillsdale Medical Center.
Known fondly by the Hillsdale College community as “Saga Steve,” Casai ’74 became a beloved figure on campus through his 35 years of working in food service. Always dressed in a suit, his constant smile and cheerful greetings impacted many over his career, as evidenced by the outpouring of love since his hospitalization last September. Within days, his hospital room was flooded with flowers and cards from students, staff, and alumni.
“Steve was a godly man,” Associate Dean of Men Jeffery Rogers said Wednesday. “He really blessed people, and not so much with his words, but his actions, his kindness, and his smile. He had a service heart, and he did everything in a way that was graceful.”
Though Casai left an impression on so many, few knew him well, and he preferred it that way, his longtime friend Bud Vear said Wednesday night.
“The students have become his family through the years. He’s a very people-oriented person in some ways, and yet he’s a very private person,” Vear said. “He deals beautifully with people, but you’re not going to have a long conversation with him — that’s true even with me. As a student and then coming back to work here, Hillsdale really changed his life and made him into the wonderful person that he has been, and I think he wanted to leave his life before behind.”
Senior Klara Holscher, who worked with Casai closely for two years, attested to his caring nature that fostered a close friendship between them even though he shared few personal details.
“He didn’t say a lot about his past,” Holscher said. “I think it was filled with a lot of sadness.”
Despite Casai’s privateness, Holscher said they shared many conversations about books, her family, music, theater, and his life advice. When he grew close to people, she said, he would tease them, too, and he admitted that he didn’t like being called “Saga Steve.”
“He was a particular person, and I don’t think nicknames were his thing, but he was the type of person to still smile anyway,” Holscher said.
That smile at first took Heather Tritchka ’98, off guard, but it later formed the foundation for another dear friendship.
“When I was a college student, I came from California, and he was always friendly, which I wasn’t used to,” Tritchka said. “I came to like it, and later he invited me to a Right to Life talk at the college — that was one of the first things I was invited to in college. We struck up a friendship after that since I always saw him at the cafeteria.”
After Tritchka graduated, Casai invited her to a Right to Life of Hillsdale County event, on whose board he served for more than three decades. His passion for the organization inspired Tritchka to invest in the group’s mission, too.
“He was always so focused and passionate about doing work for Right to Life, which was really motivating,” she said. “That’s something I will always remember.”
For the past two weeks, Casai had been mostly unresponsive, Gloria Vear said, and he completely quit talking.
When Rogers heard this, he organized students to visit Casai. Wednesday afternoon, a couple hours before his death, Holscher and her sister Rebecca visited Casai with Rogers to read him Bible passages, sing, and pray for his pain to be taken away.
“I suspect they probably prepared his way out with hymns,” Vear said.
Although Casai did not respond to their presence, and they didn’t know if he could hear them, the three finished by singing “Going Home.”
“He died shortly after they left,” Vear said. “We figured they sang him into heaven.”
The college is coordinating a memorial service to be held on campus. Details will be finalized in the next few days. Casai is survived by his brother, Richard Valentine.
Complete obituary to follow next week.