Gov. Mike Pence came home to Columbus on Friday to award one of Indiana’s highest honors to a local teacher.
Educator Victoria Baker, a Bartholomew County native and director of the Cummins Child Development Center, was given the Sagamore of the Wabash Award.
“It truly was a surprise and an honor at the same time,” said Baker, who holds an associate’s degree in early childhood development from Indiana University and has been the early childhood center’s director since 2001. After the 2008 floods in Columbus, the center was rebuilt and expanded.
“The governor said the center is world-class and a model school. He was so impressed,” Baker said after the surprise presentation of the state honor. “Mr. Pence said he’s going to schedule a trip for his wife (a longtime school teacher) to see the center; he was overwhelmed.”
In remarks about Baker’s achievements, Pence lauded the accomplished teacher for her commitment to early childhood education and for making a difference in the community.
“(Baker) has set a standard for early childhood education that has influenced communities throughout the state, nation and indeed the world,” the governor said.
Pence said that at the beginning of the year he told state officials that he wanted to identify Hoosiers who have made an unusually significant contribution to Indiana and renew presentations of the Sagamore of the Wabash Award.
The award, created in the 1940s by then-Gov. Ralph Gates, is used to honor servant leaders from various walks of Indiana life.
Pence said Baker serves as a prime example of the kind of people he plans to honor.
The Cummins center was expanded after the flood and reopened in 2011 following a nearly $5 million upgrade and facelift. It serves mainly children of Cummins’ employees.
“We have everything a child could desire in terms of materials so they can excel,” Baker said after receiving the award. “We also have truly outstanding teachers here who are our greatest assets.”
Pence noted that Baker is a former winner of the Hoosier Educator of the Year Award presented by the Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children.
“Her engagement within the community has left a lasting impact on countless Hoosiers who come into contact with her,” Pence said. “Among her many acts of service, Victoria has helped to engage children affected by domestic abuse through her work at Turning Point, a United Way agency. She assisted in relocating and rebuilding the Cummins Child Development Center after the devastating floods of 2008.
“Her passion for youngsters and the critical needs they face has taken her all over the world, including her time spent at Beijing Hope Orphanage in China, where she created a developmentally stimulating learning environment for orphans with physical and mental challenges,” the governor said.
Baker said she’ll keep her Sagamore of the Wabash Award near another prized possession: a letter of thanks from former Cummins chairman of the board J. Irwin Miller, who died at age 95 nearly a decade ago.
“Mr. Miller’s letter is the most precious thing that I have. He wrote to me and signed it himself,” she said.
Baker said her interest in children and education was sparked by her parents.
“I can point to having a great mom and dad. Parents are our first teachers. They were great role models,” Baker said.
Reporter Boris Ladwig of The Republic contributed to this story.