Michael Sarka

Obituary of Michael Francis Sarka

We lost the Michael we knew to dementia little by little over time, but now his body has joined his spirit in eternal rest.


Michael was born in St. Paul Minnesota, the only surviving child of Frank and Marie Sarka. Both his parents worked full time for the railroads, so as a child Michael spent his summers on a family farm in Gratiot Wisconsin where his cousins remain close family to him.


Michael was a product of 16 years Catholic school, including Bishop Cretin (yes) High School and St. Thomas (then) College where he paid for tuition working at Uncle John's Pancake House. After graduation, Michael went to the Peace Corps in Iran, a pivotal and formative experience, inspiring a life of international interest, life-long friends, love of travel and openness to new ideas.


Adjusting to life in the States as a Peace Corps Recruiter working out of Los Angeles, he took on Peace Corps-sanctioned relief work following the 1970 7.9 magnitude "PeruQuake." He coordinated the West Coast organization of Pat Nixon's Air Force 2 relief efforts and worked with the Peruvian Counsel to recruit empty tuna ships to carry supplies to Peru. In the process of moving supplies from the hangers to the docks, he met Rosemary, the Western Representative of the American Freedom From Hunger Foundation who would become his wife. He also impressed the head of public relations for the Civil Aeronautics Board who hired Michael during a government hiring freeze to collate press releases, but Michael soon advanced to become the press attache for the Chairman of the CAB.


 From the CAB, Michael continued his travel and tourism career in acronym-studded DC by working at DATO, Discover America Travel Organizations, becoming in charge of the largest travel trade expo in the US at that time. Next he became Executive Director of Travel South, USA, representing the 13 southern states and providing opportunities such as viewing the Kentucky Derby from the finish line, judging the Miss Alabama Hospitality Pageant, and becoming familiar with a catfish farm in Mississippi.


Next he returned to DC as VP of Travel Industry Association of America (now Visit US) until he got an offer to head the California Travel Industry Association, which gave him the opportunity to live in wonderful Santa Cruz County. His major accomplishment during this period was to grow the Vacation Rental Managers Association (now merged with vrbo) from 12 to 500+ members, managing conferences, seminars and multiple publications.


Without a doubt, however, his retirement job as a manager at Roaring Camp Railroads was his favorite job ever, meeting, greeting and working with happy people, both guests and staff. In many ways, this was the culmination of a career in hospitality.


Michael had many opportunities and adventures. He taught travel and tourism courses at Georgia State University and SJSU, testified before committees of the US Congress regarding the value of tourism to the US, and developed with George Washington University the certification criteria for meeting planners. Michael traveled to five continents and visited all 50 states. He was also deeply engaged with the Santa Cruz community, at one point serving simultaneously as President of the Board of the Visitors Council (now Visit Santa Cruz) and President of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce. He volunteered with SCORE and Senior Services, ran a bicycle rental center for a time, and volunteered with the Agricultural History Project. Besides writing and editing newsletters, Michael wrote profiles of local business leaders and business for a publication called Business Santa Cruz, providing an opportunity to meet and get to know people, his favorite thing to do. Many of those people will miss him dearly.


Michael was known for his engaging optimism and enthusiasm, as well as a quirky sense of humor. He mentored many and befriended many more, each of whom he cherished as a best friend.


Michael is survived by beloved cousins, mostly in Wisconsin but also Vienna Austria, a niece and several nephews including Amiel Benson, as well as Rosemary, his wife of 52 years. A funeral Mass will be celebrated February 24, 2023 at 11:00 AM at Holy Cross Church, 210 High Street, Santa Cruz, 95060 which would gratefully accept any memorial contributions.


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Funeral Mass

11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Friday, February 24, 2023
Holy Cross Mission
126 High St.
Santa Cruz, California, United States
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