John Czaja

John CzajaJohn Czaja died last September 21, survived by Carol Fishman Czaja, a childhood friend and the mother of his children, Ian and Jason, his grandchildren Ben and Nik, and his wife of 25 years, Brenda Stevens.

He was a musical prodigy, especially on the trumpet. He could play anything, but he his greatest love was jazz and the blues. He was already giving music lessons to others by age ten, and in high school he played every weekend with an adult band, as well as the New Hampshire Symphony.

He kept making music at Yale, playing in both the football band and the concert band. “John played trumpet in the Yale Marching Band during the years when a salacious performance was de rigeur,” says his roommate, John Crowley. “And he had a beautiful singing voice,” adds Joe Cohen, a fellow Saybrugian. “He was soft spoken but a really nice guy.”

“He was a very personable guy and an excellent cornet player, a stalwart of the Yale Band’s strong brass section,” remembers Mike Orlansky. “I recall some nice talks with John on bus rides to away football games, sometimes about his beloved home state of New Hampshire. John’s roommate and close friend was Brian Smith, captain of the cheerleading squad. Together, John and Brian were a lot of fun and brought a great Yale spirit to those long-ago football Saturdays.”

At Yale he fell in love with psychology and continued his studies at Connecticut College, where he was a research and teaching assistant. These experiences gave him the foundation for his future research as a psychoneuroendocrinologist (one who looks at the impact of hormones on the physical functioning and behavior of animals) and demonstrated to him the importance of faculty mentors, grant writing, and undergraduate research experiences.

He got his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and taught at several colleges before winding up in 1985 at Miami, where he was a professor in the Psychology Department and Associate Director of what is now the Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship. In addition to helping faculty write research proposals, John was responsible for university animal care, patents, and the development of a computer network. Over time, his focus shifted to facilitating grant writing, faculty mentoring, and developing programs for undergraduate research experiences

So how did he pronounce his name, anyway?

“John went by ‘Saja,’ says John Crowley. “But, he explained, the correct Polish pronunciation was ‘Chyah.’ Because he figured that Russian must be like Polish, he gave it a try. It was very unlike Polish. Like me, he graduated from a public high school. So did another of our roommates. We knew that ours was the first Yale class to have a majority – however razor thin – of non-private schoolers. This mattered in an intangible way.

“Our roommate Brian Smith was a lover of bridge, and he taught the rest of us, including Tom Beard, the fourth in our quad room, how to play. Before long, we all became bridge addicts, sitting cross-legged on the floor (for lack of a table) and dealing hand after hand well into the night. John and I were partners.

“After graduation, I saw John only once more: twenty-five years ago at Miami of Ohio, where he was an administrator and I was a job candidate. He drove me to Cincinnati one afternoon, and we came back to his house for more conversation. It was glorious, and I hoped so much that we would be reunited there. But I was the runner-up.

“How to capture John’s essence in an image? He was fundamentally feline in his graceful sinuosity. He had the smile of the Cheshire cat in John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. I can see him grinning and maybe hear him purring right now.”

When John was a boy, he loved spending time with his family at the lake – swimming, boating, and, especially, watching the loons, which he could do for hours on end. And his love for those beautiful, graceful birds never left him. Before he died, he requested that in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory be sent to The Loon Preservation Committee, a center and wildlife sanctuary dedicated to the protection and preservation of this ancient and threatened species.