Commentary: He left the world a better place

Joe PIsani
Joe PIsani

This is a different kind of holiday story. A story about one man’s life and death. A story about an ordinary extraordinary man who changed the world … for the better.

He was a man whose obituary didn’t appear in the New York Times and whose death didn’t attract national attention or make the evening news, and yet he was a man who had a more lasting influence on the world than congressmen and media moguls and Wall Street power-brokers.

George Saffian, who died at 87, was a high school biology teacher with an unusual story. Forty years ago, when he saw society coming apart at the seams, he left behind the city and his career in education and moved his wife and young children to the mountains, where he thought he could give them a better life.

He was sort of a modern day Thoreau, who turned a 13-acre field into one of the most beautiful campgrounds in the White Mountains.

George was born and reared in Michigan. He left high school to enlist in the Air Force during World War II but later resumed his education and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Marched to a different drummer

George was a man who sang in the Sunday choir, who volunteered at the local nursing home, who loved to watch “Barney Miller” reruns, and who cherished his 22 grandchildren and spent long days with them in the mountains. He was a man whose best friend was his wife, Kathy, to whom he was faithfully married for 57 years.

He was a tall, distinguished man with gray hair and a gray beard, and his eyes twinkled when he laughed. Everything he did and everything he believed was contrary to what modern society tells us is important, and in that respect, he was a man who marched to a different drummer. Yes, he was like Thoreau.

Very ‘George’ until the day he died

I was blessed to know George. I couldn’t attend his funeral, but his wife sent a letter that expressed the depth of their love:

“Thank you so very much for George’s Mass offering. It is very special to know that Fr. Murphy will have this Mass at St. Agnes Church in New York City. It is a very special church for many reasons, one of which is that my mom and dad often attended that church when they visited the Big City many years ago.

George was a wonderful man, indeed, and please know that he had a special affection for you. … Our life this past year was pretty restricted. When George resigned from the church choir some time last spring, we both knew his time would not be very long.

But he actually stayed very ‘George’ right until the day he died. Very frail, but still so strong of spirit. We enjoyed 57 years together with all of life’s ups and the downs. When I watched our seven children guide George’s coffin into the church, it was the closest I came to tears.

My memories are so sweet and full of laughter that I have never been anything but grateful and ‘joyfully sad’ since we said to each other, ‘Good-bye. See you later.’”

Left the world a better place

I’ve often thought that the greatest testament to a person’s life is that when he dies, everyone is thankful that he lived, because of the joy, strength and compassion he showed to others.

That was George’s story, a simple yet profound one that left the world a better place.

Joe Pisani, who grew up in Shelton’s Pine Rock neighborhood, may be reached at