June 27th, 2015 1:21 am

First Posted: 9/21/2013

For the last 16 years, I’ve asked myself the same question: “Why do I still work at Savo’s Pizza?”

Like many other people from the Greater Pittston area, it was my first job, and something that helped me meet some great friends, many of which I still have to this day.

Unlike most people who worked there for short periods before moving on with their careers, I continued to give my time whenever my full-time schedule permits. While many of the friends I’ve made throughout the years have since left Savo’s, I could never really put my finger on what exactly it was that made me keep coming back.

Until this week.

As we all know by now, this week saw one of Pittston’s true “giants”, Mike Savokinas — or Mike Savo as mostly everyone knew him — pass away. For many people who worked for Mike, he was considered the boss, an often stress-filled boss who would do whatever it took to keep his business and livelihood on the right track.

When I caught wind of Mike’s illness and how quickly time was running out, I finally knew the answer to the question I kept asking myself: I still work there because Mike was a friend. Not just a friend who you joke around with and have a good time with — Mike was that type of friend as well — but a friend you could talk to when times were rough, a friend who would help you out whenever he could, and a friend you knew would always be there for you whenever you needed anything from a job reference to advice on your personal life.

When Dispatch editor Ed Ackerman and I went to visit Mike in the hospital this past week, I already knew it would be the last time I would be seeing someone who had as much mutual respect for me as I did for him. What I didn’t know was how many good memories would come back to me during the visit.

Beneath his sometimes tough exterior lay a heart of gold. Throughout years of working together, I was able to see that side of Mike through many different angles, the most surprising of which was our respect of rock and roll. Much like rock and roll there were good times and bad times.

I remembered ten years ago when about two dozen employees and I brought a drum kit, guitars, keyboards, basses and a couple cases of beer to the old Giant Supermarket building – a place Mike used for storage – and had a jam session. Things were going great until we heard Mike’s distinct voice overpower the music and tell everyone to get out, in slightly harsher terms.

Savo’s former manager and I were the two highest ranking people there at the time, and our first thought was “we’re going to be fired. What will we do?”

After everyone else left, Mike — rather than fire us or curse us out — helped with the cleanup and told us: “Listen. If you guys need a place to rehearse, you can use the back room of Savo’s after we close.”

Mike was not ignorant by any means. He knew what we were doing, but he always tried to turn a negative into a positive. It’s the kind of man he was.

I remembered Mike being one of the big proponents of my music column that ran in The Dispatch for ten years and never saying anything but positive words to me about it. I thought about my interview with B.B. King in 2007, and coming into Savo’s for some beer on the Sunday it came out. I casually said “hello” to Mike, and he got off his chair, came right over to me, gave me a firm handshake, a pat on the back and said, “I read your story today. Very good job; I’m proud of you.”

It’s those kinds of small things that stay with you your whole life.

I remembered the summer of 2007 when I was driving to Northwest Minnesota for a four-day music festival. I was working at Savo’s six days a week at the time, and Mike knew how excited I was to make the trip. I thought about the night before we left and Mike coming over to me and saying, “I know where you work; you’re going to need this” and gave me a $100 bill with a grin on his face. Mike could make fun of himself, and in the process, feel better about himself.

Finally, I remembered the last phone conversation Mike and I ever had with each other. It was a little over a month ago, and he called me to discuss the album covers he’d been collecting to build a display on Savo’s walls. I answered the phone and was greeted with his famous “Uh, Ryan. It’s Mike from Savo’s.” After replying “Mike, you don’t have to say who it is. I’ve been hearing your voice for 16 years. At this point, I hear it in my sleep,” he quickly responded “Ryan, it’s the Boogeyman.”

We chatted, I gave him everything he needed, and he said “thanks for the help. I knew there was a reason I haven’t fired you yet.” A perfect example of Mike being Mike, and the ideal way I want to remember him.

It was memories like those that made me want to see Mike before it was too late. Seeing a friend for the last time can be tough, but Mike was awake and talking as much as he could. When Ed Ackerman said “Mike, I’m here with Ryan O’Malley,” I will never forget Mike saying “O’Malley, when are you on next?” and smiling while the room cracked up.

I will also never forget holding his hand and saying “we’ve been through a lot together over the last 16 years. Thanks for everything and I love you.” He squeezed my hand, said it back, and those were the last words we spoke to each other.

Tears were shed because at that moment, I realized how much of a friend Mike was to me. I also realized that when I first talked to Mike that night, I promised I would finish the album collection for him (to which he smiled and said “yes”), and if there’s one thing Mike was always known for it was keeping a promise. After 16 years, I owe it to him.