Citytv Breakfast Television co-host Dina Pugliese says her Grade 1 teacher was an early role model and a major inspiration.
BY BILL HARRIS
PHOTOS: RAINA AND WILSON; SUPPLIED BY CAROLYN CATANIA
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Dina Pugliese paid the ultimate compliment to Carolyn Catania, her Grade 1 teacher at St. Charles Catholic School in Toronto.
Pugliese currently is the co-host of Breakfast Television, which airs weekday mornings on Citytv, and many viewers admire her style, grace, demeanour and professionalism. Morning TV is a tough job; getting up hours before dawn every day and presenting the best version of yourself to the world. But Pugliese says Catania was a great early role model, to the point of literal mimicry.
“Whenever my sisters and I were done our homework, we would play school,” says Pugliese. “I would always pretend to be the teacher, and I would take on her name. I’d say, ‘I’m Miss Catania,’ and my sisters would be my students.
“I’d be handing out papers, or I’d say here’s a pop quiz, and I’d carry books like she did,” she says. “To me she was like a celebrity. She was my idol.”
Pugliese describes herself as “a devil at home and an angel in school” in those days, explaining that while she competed with her sisters for attention at home, in school she always focused and did her best to impress her teachers. When it came to Catania, though, Pugliese remembers her as being consistently kind, no matter what kind of students were in her class.
“Whenever I had to go to her with a question, she made me feel like whatever I had to say was important,” says Pugliese. “She was truly present, giving you her ear and time, answering as best she could, despite whatever was going on in the classroom with all the other kids.” She adds, “She really took the time to give you a generous and thoughtful response.”
Pugliese doesn’t know if Catania ever knew how much she admired her and how lucky she felt to have had such a positive experience at the very start of her years in school. “She raised the bar and she stayed with me. She instilled in me not only a love of the arts but also the importance of kindness and leading by example,” she says. “She was a model of that behaviour every day. When you were in that classroom, it was just her little magical bubble of learning and kindness and giving.”
Catania, who is now retired and living in King City, Ont., is originally from Toronto and graduated with an Honours degree in psychology, with minors in history and sociology, from York University. After getting her teacher’s certificate at the University of Toronto, she was hired by the Toronto Catholic District School Board in 1975 and got a job at St. Charles, where she eventually taught Pugliese. Later, she taught at Sts. Cosmas and Damian Catholic School.
In 1990, Catania moved to the York Catholic District School Board, teaching at St. David Catholic Elementary School in Maple, Ont. Then, in 2000, the board hired a team of program resource teachers for science and technology, so she served in that position, providing assistance in the implementation of the new science and technology curriculum. Three years later, she became a program resource teacher in the areas of numeracy and literacy before retiring from the board in 2007.
“Oh yes, I do remember Dina, she was an exceptional student,” Catania says. “She had a quiet presence.” Catania recalls Pugliese was also meticulous about her appearance. “I remember commenting to her mother how, no matter what activity Dina was engaged in, she always went home spotless.” She adds, “The relationships I built with Dina, her two sisters and her mother were wonderful.”
Catania becomes almost breathless upon hearing Pugliese’s appreciative words and memories.
“Oh, she’s too kind. To have a student reach out and tell you how much they valued their time in your classroom, it’s truly humbling,” she says. “As teachers, we’re often focused on the curriculum, but the human connections we make are also so important.
“You never know the impact that you’ll have on these children. But when Dina talks about the safe learning environment, that’s something I always tried to have, a positive place where the students felt valued and supported,” says Catania. “I believe when you have a good relationship with your students, they’ll feel positive about your class and about school in general.”
Catania always tried to make learning fun so students would become active participants in their own education. “That Dina had that experience is so affirming,” she says.
By the time Pugliese was in Grade 6, her family had moved to Woodbridge, Ont., so she lost touch with Catania. But a dozen years ago they had a reunion — on TV. Pugliese was still fairly new to her job at Breakfast Television and coincidentally it was around the time that Catania was retiring.
One of Catania’s colleagues had contacted the staff at Breakfast Television, in the hope that perhaps Pugliese could write Catania a note, congratulating her on her retirement. When Pugliese also mentioned on-air that Catania had been her favourite teacher, colleagues of both women secretly arranged for her to pay a visit to the show.
“They did a, ‘Do you recognize this voice?’ surprise chat with me,” Pugliese recalls. She heard “Good morning, Dina” and knew right away. “It’s been decades since I heard her voice, but instantly I thought, ‘That’s Miss Catania!’ I was bawling. I was a mess. It was such a great throwback,” she says.
Catania fondly remembers the studio visit as an exhilarating and gratifying day, and not only because she got to reconnect with Pugliese. “I was very nervous, but Dina was so welcoming and warm and put me instantly at ease,” she remembers. “I have to say that my appearance was even more rewarding because at the end of the interview, Kevin Frankish (Pugliese’s co-host at the time) used that as an opportunity to pay tribute to all teachers who touch the lives of their students and make a lasting impact, and I thought that recognition was very, very nice.”
Catania is thrilled with Dina’s success. “Anyone I’ve talked to about her always says the same thing: She’s genuine, she has that warmth, she’s down to earth, and her sense of humour and enthusiasm are contagious,” she says. “Watching her in the morning, now that I’m retired, is delightful. It’s not surprising that she’s such a successful TV host. I saw many of those traits, and her interpersonal skills were evident in how she interacted with her classmates, all the way back in Grade 1.”
But throwing the compliment right back, Pugliese insists that a good portion of the way she carries herself today can be traced directly to her first role model, Carolyn Catania. “I was so sad when I realized she was my teacher for just that one year,” Pugliese says. “I wanted her to be my teacher for the rest of my life.”
All things considered, it kind of worked out that way.
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.