Aspen teachers honor philanthropist Dick Butera
August 18, 2009
ASPEN – For a decade, Aspen businessman and philanthropist Dick Butera has honored local educators for their invaluable role in the community. On Monday, teachers honored Butera.
The former owner of the Hotel Jerome and The Aspen Club founded the Distinguished Teacher Awards 10 years ago, launching an astoundingly generous program that distributed $10,000 awards to at least 10 teachers annually. A combination of students, parents and teachers participated in the nomination and selection of winners, which grew to include Aspen School District support staff and Aspen Community School teachers. Superintendent Diana Sirko estimated the awards have totaled some $1.2 million since the program’s inception.
The program expired with the awards handed out in the spring.
“It seems like yesterday and all of a sudden this year, the 10-year pledge was up,” said an emotional Butera, who was the center of attention for a round of praise, applause and standing ovations Monday morning at Aspen High School, where teachers convened for the first full-staff work day of the new school year.
“I didn’t know 10 years ago that I was going to have a conflict of interest,” Butera confessed, holding up a photograph of his 4-year-old son. “He’ll be coming here.”
Butera was also presented with a thick scrapbook containing photographs and letters from a decade’s worth of recipients who described how they spent their prize money – on things like weddings, debts and dream vacations.
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“If you receive this award, you understand what it is like to have, for a time, a span of ease,” said high school English teacher Andy Popinchalk. The award ensured he would receive a loan to buy housing, he said.
For recipients, the award has also meant recognition that goes beyond the money.
“This man has given me something that is one of the most remarkable experiences of my teaching career,” said second-grade teacher Mimi Hauenstein. “I was shocked, I was in awe. I felt as if I had won the Academy Awards.”
The award program, said school board president Charla Belinski, speaks to a spirit of community participation. Those who think it’s only about Aspen wealth miss the point, she said.
“What they miss is that the magic happens because of people like Dick,” she said. “Thanks for helping make that magic happen here.”
“There are only two groups of people we can’t do without – the hospital workers and you,” Butera told the assembled group. “This is a very small thing that we do for you.”
Butera said he has contemplated trying to extend the program, but admits he fears a conflict of interest once his son enters school, though he said he has never cast a vote to select the winners.
The awards program actually debuted in 1999 with two recipients who were summoned to the Hotel Jerome under the guise of discussing a new achievement award. Instead, two shocked teachers received the first of the $10,000 grants and Butera announced that 10 would be awarded each year for the next decade, though sometimes more than 10 winners were chosen.
Sixth-grade teacher Peter Westcott was one of the two inaugural winners.
“I mostly admire him for recognizing and trying to inspire educators,” Westcott said Monday. “Just his idea inspired me.”