Tony Sykora dedicated his entire life to advocating, promoting, and celebrating Catholic education in Canada. Sadly, Mr. Sykora is no longer with us; however, his outstanding contributions to Catholic education in Canada will live on for generations. For his achievements, he has been named the 2019 Higgins Award winner.
The Higgins Award is awarded annually in honour of distinguished Canadian jurist and Catholic School Trustee, the Honourable Justice James Higgins. CCSTA’s Board of Directors presents the award to a person or group that has made a long-term, exceptional contribution to Catholic education in Canada. The Higgins Award is the highest honour provided by CCSTA.
Mr. Sykora was nominated for the award by the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association (ACSTA).
A Faithful Servant
Mr. Sykora had a long and distinguished career serving Catholic education.
He served in Catholic education in Alberta for over 25 years in many different capacities. He was a school council chair, a school trustee for 18 years, ACSTA Director from 2005 to 2008, ACSTA Vice President from 2009 to 2011, ACSTA President from 2011 to 2015, and ACSTA Past President until his passing. In addition to his work in Alberta, he also served as Director and Vice President of the CCSTA.
Mr. Sykora had a passion for Catholic education. It was this unbridled enthusiasm, combined with his gentle, committed, and thoughtful leadership approach that made him such an effective and beloved advocate. He truly cared about people, and he was always delighted to listen to what everyone had to say. This is evident in the many genuine relationships he formed with government officials, trustees, administrators, teachers, and parents.
“Tony was ultimately the type of person that didn’t see people by title or position or status in life,” says Michael Hauptman, a colleague and dear friend of Mr. Sykora. “He truly saw every individual as just as important as the next. He could be just as comfortable having a coffee with a minister of education one day and sitting down for tea with a librarian and asking how things are going at the school level.”
ACSTA President Serena Shaw wrote in her nomination letter that Mr. Sykora was an endless source or wisdom, inspiration, and leadership, wherever he went.
“In his humble, unassuming way, Tony served as a faith filled and faithful servant leader who advocated and defended, passionately and enthusiastically, not only in Catholic Education, but in the Catholic faith as a whole.”
Kevin Feehan, 2014 Higgins Award winner, wrote in his letter of support for Mr. Sykora’s nomination: “Tony is remembered as a gentle, committed and consultative leader. He truly cared for everyone and was a wonderful listener. In every role he undertook, he made friends, forged relationships, and effected positive results. Catholic education today is richer and stronger as a consequence of his calm, objective and positive contributions.”
A Resolute Leader
As President of the ACSTA, Mr. Sykora dealt with many serious issues and challenges to Catholic education in Alberta. He always handled them with a gentle and firm resolve, rooted in his unwavering belief in the incredible value of Catholic education.
“Many times, he was called upon to speak in support of Catholic education: in meetings with government officials, in media interviews and among parishioners and the public at large. His words were given special credence by the example of his life, above all in his visible and unwavering commitment to place himself entirely at the service of the students, administration, teachers and staff of our school communities,” wrote Most Reverend Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton in his letter of support.
CCSTA President Marino Gazzola says that Mr. Sykora was a kind and gentle-hearted leader who people knew they could trust.
“When he had something to say, people really listened because they knew it was valuable,” he says. “He was somebody you could really trust and look to for answers.”
His humble nature made those around him feel welcome and empowered to speak their mind, wrote Ms. Shaw.
“He made each person feel important and worthy. He even often referred to people as ‘my good friend,’ and we all really believed it!”
“Tony took every challenge presented to him – discerned the guidance of God, consulted the wisdom of the team and experts and worked to ensure that the ACSTA, and Catholic education, maintained a respected voice for Catholic Education in Alberta and beyond.”
A Caring Neighbour
Mr. Sykora was known by all as caring neighbour, someone who loved people and who was always quick to lend a hand.
Dean Sarnecki, ACSTA Executive Director and dear friend of Mr. Sykora, says that Mr. Sykora had a very unique personality.
“He was one of those people that everybody liked,” he says. “He was just inviting. When people talked to him, he listened, and he actually cared. He drew people to him. He had a friendly, open personality.”
Mr. Gazzola recalls the sheer number of activities he was involved in or helped out with.
“More than anything it was his time commitment. He was willing to give all the time that was needed. Whether it was at the local, provincial, or national level, he was willing to do whatever it took. His time commitment was endless, and that’s on top of working,” he says.
The genuine and positive relationships Mr. Sykora cultivated with others were authentic friendships that touched many lives. This is perhaps most evidenced by the tremendous outpouring of support and mourning that came following Mr. Sykora’s illness being disclosed and up until his passing.
“When Tony passed away, the community mourned – not just the board of trustees, or a few leadership people, or his family – the community mourned,” says Mr. Hauptman. “He had people from all over Alberta, from all walks of life who came out to mourn Tony. Everybody came out because he touched so many people. It’s just a rare thing to see.”
A Worthy Recipient
Mr. Sykora truly earned the honour of the Higgins Award over his lifetime of service.
“Tony lived and breathed Catholic education for over 30 years,” says Mr. Hauptman. “He truly saw it as being such a wonderful opportunity for anyone who wanted to embrace it. Tony was all about what Catholic education could offer to any child, any family, and any community.”
Justine Wright, Elk Island Catholic Schools trustee sums up the lessons she’s learned:
“As we near the second anniversary of Tony’s passing, his presence around the Board table is still missed by all those who worked with him for many years. My three years spent as Board Chair after his tenure taught me that life is precious, God is good, and that the angels in our lives will always be watching over us.”