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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.