Pittston loses a champion, and I a good friend

June 27th, 2015 1:27 am

First Posted: 9/20/2013

There’d be ten inches of snow on the ground. Mike Savokinas would call. “Eddie, I have a picture of Main Street after a big snowstorm. I’d guess it’s 1955, judging by the cars.”

St. Patrick’s Day would roll around. Mike Savokinas would call. “Eddie, I’m holding a picture of a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Pittston. Looks like the 1940s, judging by the cars.”

Memorial Day. Mike would call.

Heat wave. Mike would call.

Flood. Well, you know.

Mike Savokinas was in possession of thousands of photographs of Pittston’s history and although they weren’t catalogued — his filing system consisted of pasteboard boxes — he could retrieve any of them in an instant. And he delighted in providing them to the Sunday Dispatch.

While what I just described was a pretty common occurrence at the paper, it represents just one-tenth or less of my nearly five decade relationship with Mike Savokinas whose death Friday morning left many in these parts shaken. He was 73 but didn’t look it. Not even as I stood at his bedside in a hospice unit Wednesday evening. All the Savokinases drank from the fountain of youth, it seems.

As we contemplated the sadness of the situation, that Mike was probably not going to last more than a day and surely would not make it to the year 2014 and the 50th anniversary of Savo’s Pizza that he so looked forward to, I realized the history of the business he founded with his brother Ray in 1964 coincides exactly with how long I have known him. I was a freshman in high school when Savo’s opened on South Main Street. I began eating their pizza then at 10 cents a slice and although I griped just last week that two trays delivered, one with pepperoni, ran me 32 bucks, I still love it. The griping was good-natured … just old guy talk.

While Mike and I spent hours and hours over the past ten years either reminiscing about Pittston’s rich history or planning what we envisioned as its glorious future, most of my memories of him cannot be separated from his business partner and brother Ray. I joined the Dispatch shortly after high school as a sports writer but soon got involved in advertising. That was because I was an art major in college and that’s all Mike and Ray had to hear. You think today’s Geico ads are crazy? You should have seen these two guys in the early ’70s.

Eddie, can you draw a tray of our pizza dancing with a kitchen stove? Headline: Savo’s unbaked pizza and your oven … made for each other.

Eddie, can you draw burgers from Burger King and McDonald’s fighting like heavyweight boxers in a ring? Headline: Enjoy the fight … with Savo’s Pizza.

Eddie, can you draw a jar of our chili splattered on the sidewalk and a feather floating next to it? Headline: If you drop a jar of Savo’s chili and a feather off the top of a building, the chili will hit the ground faster. But feathers taste lousy on a hot dog.

Eddie, can you print our ad backwards on one side of a page of the paper and leave the other side blank with just the words: Hold up to a lamp and when they do, they’ll see an ad that says: Now that you’ve seen the light, try Savo’s pizza?

But the one that got the most response, Ray reminded me Friday evening, was when Mike had us run an ad with huge letters reading “Don’t buy Savos’ pizza.” Under it in small print was “Unless you want the very best.” Most people only saw the big words and blamed the Dispatch for trying to put Savo’s out of business.

Working with the Savokinas boys was an absolute ball. Talk about daring. They’d try something and if it didn’t work, they’d immediately forget about it and try something else.

Mike and Ray Savokinas represent something that could probably never happen today: two young brothers with barely two nickles to rub together opening a business and growing it into a huge success. All they had going for them was a belief in their product (a pizza sauce perfected by their mom), their willingness to work hard, and their love of people. In the 50 years since their opening it is difficult to list the names of the hundreds of young people who worked for them and impossible to count the number of friends they made.

Business owners often have to be tough and Mike could be if he had to. But his kind heart always trumped his toughness. Ray said when it came time shortly after Mike’s death to decide if his eyes should be donated for transplant, Mike’s son said, “What would Dad do?” The answer was easy.

“We don’t know who will get his eyes,” Ray said, “but I keep thinking of the old Gene Pitney song. They’ll be looking through the eyes of love.”

I got to experience Mike Savokinas’ love many times and continued to right until the end.

He was in and out of reality Wednesday night and when they first told him Eddie Ackerman was there to see him, he mumbled “what’s his address?” like it was another pizza order.

But his family persisted. “You know Eddie Ackerman,” one of them said. “He’s standing right here. Open your eyes.”

Struggling, Mike managed to open one eye just a slit.

“Eddie,” he suddenly said. “Give me a hug and a kiss.”

So I did.

I think we both knew it was a kiss good-bye.