'She was an inspiration' Tini Sawicki, Amherst businesswoman, dies after 25-year on-off battle with breast cancer

Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2014
AMHERST — Ernestine “Tini” Sawicki, an Amherst realtor known for her can-do spirit and willingness to help others, died Tuesday afternoon at 72 after battling cancer on and off for over 25 years.

Reached at Sawicki Real Estate, Rick Sawicki said that seeing his mother’s empty office Wednesday was extremely difficult, as was breaking the news of her death to the community members who often stop by or call to check in on her. Those included members of her cancer survivors’ group, he said.

“‘She was an inspiration.’ I hear those words over and over again,” he said. “Most of the things she accomplished in her life, she accomplished while she had breast cancer.”

Tini Sawicki, whose nickname is pronounced Tiny, inspired many with the way she lived her life to the fullest, volunteered for community causes, mentored others, and treated her business associates as family. And according to those interviewed Wednesday, she did it all with a smile on her face and no complaints.

“There are people you meet in your life that make such an imprint on your heart because of who they are,” said Mary Ellen Clark, who helped Tini Sawicki train for a marathon and several triathlons starting in 2006. “Tini for me is someone I hope to grow up to be like. She had all the right stuff — her character, her career, her attitude toward life, the balance she had in her life, and her understanding for what’s important.

“I’m one of the thousands of people she touched in that way,” Clark said.

Sawicki was a leader in the real estate world, serving several terms as the vice president of the western district Massachusetts Association of Realtors, and won numerous awards and honors for her efforts. Besides several “Realtor of the Year” prizes, she won the association’s 2005 Milton H. Shaw Distinguished Service Award out of the state’s 20,000 realtors. In May, after being a realtor for 40 years, the National Association of Realtors granted her “status emeritus” for her contributions and volunteer efforts over the years, her son said.

Raised in Pelham, Tini Sawicki started her career as a realtor in 1974, when her two children, Rick and Scott Sawicki, were young. She worked for D.H. Jones Real Estate until 1988, when she decided to start her own realty business with a partner, who eventually dropped out.

Rick Sawicki said it was at about the same time she was launching her new business that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing intensive treatment, her cancer went into remission for a decade.

In 1996, tests showed she had blood metastases that meant the cancer was back. By taking medication daily, she was able to keep the disease mostly at bay until 2011. Her condition worsened in the last four to five months, Rick Sawicki said, and she died at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston Tuesday at 4 p.m.

“She never thought it would beat her,” he said. “She meant a lot to a lot of people who went through cancer. There wasn’t a person on that unit that didn’t come and say goodbye.”

Face of the business

Rick Sawicki, of Erving, said that though she asked him to leave his job in the liquor and wine industry to run the real estate business with her, his mother did not think about retirement.

“She loved what she did. She was the face of the business,” he said. “She believed in the business and worked hard for the industry.”

She was especially interested in the ethics side of the business, he said, and chaired the Massachusetts Association of Realtors Professional Standards Committee. She also taught realtor classes as part of UMass Amherst’s continuing education program.

Corinne Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald Real Estate in Greenfield, said Sawicki’s encouragement helped her become a leader in the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. She is now its president-elect for the coming year.

“She was the one who would call and say, ‘you know, I think you should get involved,” and suggest a committee seat or other association position that needed filling, Fitzgerald said. “The majority of us who found our way into the association were inspired by Tini.”

She was a role model as a business owner and as a leader who obviously cared about giving back, Fitzgerald said. “She was a good friend, a great realtor, and she loved the business. Her company was family to her,” she said.

Tini Sawicki volunteered for many other causes outside the industry, her son said. “She believed strongly in philanthropy, in giving back,” he said.

She served on an Amherst Survival Center committee charged with finding a new site for the center in 2010 and raising the funds to purchase it.

She was a longtime Rotary Club member, Sawicki said, and volunteered on the board of the Caring for the Future campaign that raised $12 million to build Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s Kittredge Surgery Center and a new patient building.

Many of the races Tini Sawicki participated in raised funds for cancer research, he added. Those included the 2011 Pan-Mass Challenge, a bike-a-thon across the state, and her first triathlon, the New England Danskin Women’s Triathlon.

She also ran four marathons, including one in 2009 with her trainer and friend, Clark, by her side.

Rick Sawicki said his mother started running decades ago as a way to deal with the side effects of her chemotherapy, and was always active. She started training with Clark, a former Olympic diver, when she decided to try a triathlon for her 65th birthday.

“I was so fortunate to be able to work with her,” Clark said. The two trained for many hours over three or four years, she said. “For me, it was such a joy. It was just so fun to be with her, and she was so funny.”

Clark, who now lives in Waltham, recalled watching Tini launch into the pool in her first triathlon, wearing the pink bathing cap that cancer survivors were given.

“I will never forget that,” she said. “I said, ‘This is a dynamo’ — in her spirit, her attitude and her persistence to focus on the things she did have control over.”

During the time they trained, Tini was still on medication to keep the cancer under control, and sometimes she did not feel well enough to lift weights, run or swim, Clark said. But most of the time, she always said yes to whatever workout Clark suggested. “I never saw Tini complain,” she said, whether about a hard workout or being sick.

Rick Sawicki said it just wasn’t her style. “She always said, ‘Someone’s got more to complain about than you,’” he said.

In addition to her two sons, Sawicki leaves four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

“This was a lady who didn’t have a lot of things left on her bucket list,” Rick Sawicki said of his mother. “The only thing she would have asked for was more time.”

Funeral arrangements have not been finalized, Rick Sawicki said. When they are, that information will be included in an obituary.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.