Caputo wins Baker Legacy Award for public education

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Shirley Caputo was completely surprised when the board chair of Grande Yellowhead Public School Division (GYPSD) stood up during their last board meeting to announce Caputo had won the Dick Baker Legacy Award.

“I started to cry,” Caputo said, who has been a local public school trustee for 19 years. “When you’re hearing somebody talk about you, you’re kind of thinking, ‘is that me they’re talking about?’”

Normally, the recipient of the award knows they’ve won the award prior to a banquet in the spring where they give a speech, she explained. Without a banquet this year due to the pandemic, she had no idea it was coming.

“What a surprise, it was. I do what I do because I’ve been in this community going on 31 years now and it’s my community,” Caputo said. She added that it was an honour and a privilege to receive such a prestigious award.

Integrity, compassion, respect, and wisdom are the foundation of Dick Baker’s legacy to Public Education and the award is presented annually to one public school trustee who models those values. Dick Baker was a dedicated advocate for public education in Alberta, placing children first and modelling respect for the stewardship of public trust.

“I knew about Dick Baker, he was such a wise man, he was such a wise and scholarly gentleman. He always had a smile on his face and I’d always see him at the public school board when we had meetings or conferences,” Caputo said.

When accepting the award, Caputo talked about running into Dick Baker at her cousin’s wedding in Edmonton. She remembered that his wife was a teacher at the same school as her cousin, and it was interesting to see each other out of the context of the school division.

Her speech was recorded and she was told it would be played at the division’s virtual fall general meeting.

Shirley Caputo receives the Dick Baker Legacy Award, presented by Gerry Steinke, first vice president of the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta.

Caputo has served as one of the two school board trustees elected in the Hinton Ward of GYPSD since 2001.

She first sat on the school council of Roche Miette school when her son attended the school, and with the encouragement of retiring board members and her late husband, Gino, she ran as school board trustee in 2001.

“My husband said at the time, ‘You’re always so involved with the school and everything’, he said, ‘Yes, try’. And so I thought, ‘Alright, I’ll try’. And here I am, I’m still a trustee. Still learning and my focus is always on what’s best for the students,” Caputo said.

Caputo grew up in Vegreville, and has lived in the Town of Hinton for nearly 31 years. 

After leaving behind her 18-year-long career in the financial banking industry, Caputo received a certificate in early child development and became a trustee.

She often visits the schools to chat with staff and students, and likes to build a report with them.

When she sees students that have graduated, they still stop to chat and share what they’re up to since graduation.

Visiting schools has become more difficult due to the pandemic, but she managed to visit each school when they first opened with her mask on and hand sanitizer close by.

A lot of the younger kids were eager to get back to school and see their friends, she noticed.

“Of course my responsibility is being an advocate for the students that come walking through the school doors,” Caputo said.

She helps direct people with issues to the right person or resource and she follows up to make sure everyone’s issues have been dealt with.

Caputo is now in her sixth term as school board trustee, and plans to run again during the next election.

Terms for trustees used to be only three years, but have since aligned with the municipal elections to run for four years.

“Now you can learn in your first year and your second and third you can really dive into the work and then in your fourth year you can decide if you want to run for trustee again,” she said.

She added that she still has time and continues learning in her position. Looking back at her 19 years of being a trustee, she remembers some big changes and key moments.

One big change included the rebrand of the Grande Yellowhead Regional Division to the Grande Yellowhead Public School Division, putting public school in their identity.

“We went through the entire rebranding process, we spoke to people and community members,” Caputo said.

Another significant moment for Caputo happened in her second year as a trustee, when she was asked to speak during a Canadian citizenship ceremony at Ecole Mountain View.

After her speech, the judge came up to Caputo to tell her that she wrote a wonderful speech and if he could have a signed copy.

Caputo has also received recognition for her work in the past, including last year, when she received Hinton’s volunteer of the year award.

“I’m encouraging youth also about the importance of volunteering. I say to them that you’re giving to your community and it also looks very good on a resume,” Caputo said.

Caputo volunteers at the share shop, the food bank, helping people do their income tax, the Hinton Adult Learning Society (HALS), and recently became a rotary club member.

She added that many locals have stopped to congratulate her on being the recipient of the Dick Baker Legacy Award and she feels honoured to be recognized like this.