One week before his scheduled return to UCSB, senior religious studies and Spanish major and former Daily Nexus staff member Michael Porzucki died from injuries he sustained in a hiking accident while studying abroad in Spain.
U.S. Embassy officials in Madrid said shepherds saw Porzucki, 21, on Aug. 16 while he was hiking off the trail on a wet and slippery area of exposed cliff at Montana de Covadonga National Park in northern Spain. Witnesses said Porzucki apparently lost his footing and fell a distance of approximately six stories, dying before rescue helicopters could reach him.
Porzucki, a native of Torrance, Calif., was in Spain as part of the university’s Education Abroad Program and was attending the University of Granada to study the effect of the Inquisition on the Spanish Jewry.
At UCSB, he was an active member in numerous campus organizations, including Hillel and American Students for Israel. He took part in various charity and anti-war organizations and frequented many religious clubs around campus regardless of their denomination. An avid music fan, Porzucki deejayed for UCSB radio station KCSB-FM 91.9, founded a Deadhead club to share his passion for the Grateful Dead and frequently attended concerts. He also wrote over a dozen stories for the Nexus between October 2001 and May 2002.
His sister Nina said she remembers the way he never hesitated to speak to or befriend anyone he met and how his life was immersed in music.
“He was really into jazz, and one day the Blind Boys of Alabama came to UCSB, and on his way home, he stopped and saw them at Denny’s,” Nina Porzucki said. “He and his friend went up to talk to them, and found out they were going north, and Mike told them to take the 101 because it was more scenic – and they were blind, so they just laughed. He was always goofy and kind and would just talk to everyone. He was kind of a hippie at heart and a really special person. He was a good brother.”
Jason Feder, junior anthropology major and vice president of Hillel, said he had just begun his friendship with Porzucki and had eagerly anticipated his return.
“He was very into not worrying about money and just wanted to help people,” Feder said. “He wanted to do something like the Peace Corps or teach. He was just one of those really genuine, nice people, and he really listened to what you said – he stared you in the eye and didn’t pay attention to anything else. I thought this was a friend that I was going to have for life. His phone number is right here, just waiting for me to call him.”
Jon Dabach, Porzucki’s friend, said one of Porzucki’s main personality traits was his desire to bring people together.
“Mike was such an advocate for peace and freedom, and he liked making people go to church who were Jewish and making Muslims go to synagogue,” Dabach said. “I guess that’s why he was a religious studies major, to bring everyone together. His dad, in the spirit of Mike, brought three church gospel singers to his funeral to close out the event. They sang these Christian songs to this Jewish congregation, and everyone joined in and started clapping along.”
Philip Rankin, Porzucki’s best friend, said he agreed Porzucki could mix with different social groups with incredible ease.
“Mike, more than anything, wasn’t bound by different groups of people in society; he was friends with any kind of social groups,” Rankind said. “I’m making him seem so serious but he was really a loving person, and he laughed a lot. I seemed like the funniest person in the world when I was around Mike – he’d laugh out loud at the dumbest jokes.”
Religious Studies Professor Richard Hecht had planned to help Porzucki with his honors thesis, and he said he had enjoyed long conversations with Porzucki before his trip abroad.
“He took three courses with me and we spent a lot of time talking,” Hecht said. “I was very impressed with the depth of his thought. He was very excited by my Vietnam course, and he really got into that – he loved to listen to the stories of the veterans that came into his class and he was quite a storyteller himself in the way he could narrate his life. He wrote me when he was in Spain, and it was like I was living it with him. He had an absolutely charming personality and a wonderful laugh, and we used to laugh a lot.”
Among the hundreds of people that attended Porzucki’s funeral in late August, including family and friends, many were UCSB students. UCSB Hillel plans to plant a tree and dedicate a plaque in his honor, and UCSB is awarding him his diploma posthumously.
Porzucki is survived by his parents, Joseph and Elaine, and his sisters, Nina and Sarah.