Honoring Gary Burt

Through a partnership with the Kalispell Education Foundation, Courtenay Sprunger is helping to create a tutoring program at Flathead High School that will honor the legacy of her father, a beloved Flathead English teacher and avid outdoorsman

By Denali Sagner
Photos of Gary Burt. Courtesy of Courtenay Sprunger.

“If the students were willing to give 10%, my dad would show up and give 110%,” Courtenay Sprunger said, talking about her father, former Flathead High School English teacher Gary Burt.

Sprunger wears a lot of hats in the Kalispell community. She recently completed her first term in the Montana Legislature as a representative for House District 7, the geographical area that she often describes as “the heart of Kalispell.” Before running for office, Sprunger served on the boards of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, Flathead Valley Young Professionals, Montana Public Relations Society of America and the Conrad Mansion. She’s the CEO of boutique PR firm Big Sky Public Relations, and is the proud owner of multiple dogs and horses.

But, most importantly, as she recalls her many memories of growing up in Gary Burt’s house, she’s the proud daughter of a longtime educator.

Sprunger earlier this month donated $10,000 to the Kalispell Education Foundation (KEF) to spearhead an after-school tutoring program in memory of her father, who spent 30 years at Flathead High School teaching English and introducing students to the great outdoors. “Mr. Burt,” as his students called him, gained a reputation for his love of literature and his ability to connect with students from all walks of life — even those who struggled in his classes.

With Sprunger’s donation, KEF will be able to bring a year of after-school tutoring to Flathead High School, carrying on the legacy that Burt left in its classrooms and hallways.

Gary Burt at graduation in 1960. Photo courtesy of Courtenay Sprunger.

Gary Burt grew up in northern Minnesota, graduating from Bemidji High School in 1960 before enrolling in Bemidji State University, where he boasted a successful career as both a student and a runner. Though Burt initially enrolled in college to study engineering, he switched his major to secondary education with an emphasis on English. Sprunger, the youngest of Burt’s three children and his only daughter, said that her dad felt moved to make the switch to education, inspired by the teachers that had mentored him over the years.

During his 30 years at Flathead High School, Burt taught successive generations of Kalispell students, using his passion for English and love of the outdoors to make literature accessible and engaging for all of the young people who walked through his classroom doors. In addition to English and SAT and ACT prep courses, Burt pioneered “Literature for the Outdoorsman,” a class that used the wilderness to teach English to those students who struggled in a traditional classroom setting.

“They learned grammar, they learned literature and they learned literary voice through outdoor survival,” Sprunger said about her father’s “Outdoor Lit” class. “It was really a special thing.”

Beyond his teaching duties, Burt coached the Flathead High School track team, sponsored the Outdoorsman Club and worked with the Alaska Writing Project to bring a computer writing center into the high school.

“Gary had inimitable style and force of personality, and his demand for excellence left lasting impressions on generations of students. Some loved ‘Mr. Burt,’ some didn’t; but none forgot him,” Burt’s 2005 obituary in the Whitefish Pilot read.

Gary Burt and the Flathead High School Outdoorsmen’s Club rafting on the North Fork of the Flathead River. Photo courtesy of Courtenay Sprunger.

Mr. Burt was a figure at Flathead High School from his first day in 1967 through his retirement in 1996.

“He had a willingness to innovate with his curriculums and identify programs that would help draw in students who maybe weren’t engaging in the traditional cannon in the English program,” Sprunger said. “He was an innovator. He was someone who wasn’t afraid to try new things and introduce new opportunities for our students.”

For Sprunger, who has carved out a legacy in the Flathead Valley in her own right, the memories of growing up under Burt’s roof have defined her vision for the kind of community she wants to live in.

“I honestly believe that education is the gateway to opportunity for us all,” Sprunger said, adding that being raised by an educator was “a front-row seat to that.”

Sprunger campaigned on education during her 2022 run for Kalispell’s House District 7, and introduced bills to increase per capita funding for Montana libraries, fund individualized education programs in public schools and establish a statewide autism facilities grant program during the 2023 legislative session. As a freshman legislator, her push to expand innovative education programs garnered support from Kalispell teachers, administrators and school board trustees, as well as Gov. Greg Gianforte, who praised Sprunger’s work on education during an April visit to Flathead High School, the very building in which Gary Burt spent his career.

Gary Burt out on the Hungry Horse Reservoir. Photo courtesy of Courtenay Sprunger.

Sprunger’s donation to the Kalispell Education Foundation came largely from an unlikely source — the per diem raise the Montana Legislature granted itself this session.

Lawmakers in February passed House Bill 28, which increases the lodging and meals allowance legislators are allotted during the session from $132 per day to $171 per day. The Legislature also passed a salary increase, which would have raised lawmakers’ pay from $16 per hour to about $24 per hour — but the governor vetoed the measure earlier this month. 

Though some Montanans saw the self-imposed per diem and pay increases as an unjust use of legislative power, many lawmakers argued that the increase would allow a wider selection of the state population to run for the Legislature by lowering economic barriers to service, creating a more representative lawmaking body. Many also cited the rising cost of living in Helena, a trend that has befallen much of the state in recent years.

“I didn’t like us being accused of in some way voting for an increase. So I avoided it. But I look in the mirror, and I have the economic resources, as do a number of us, that it just really didn’t matter that much to me. But when I look around the room, there are others that aren’t in that situation,” Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad said, speaking about House Bill 28. “This Legislature, this group of people here, should be reflective of a body, the state as a whole.” 

While Sprunger said she understood the argument in favor of House Bill 28, she felt that there was other work that should have gotten done ahead of increasing the per diem.  

“I don’t think we need to vilify one another. A lot of people are there and are working really hard and it’s a massive financial sacrifice for them,” she said, but added: “In the end, for me, I believe leaders eat last.”

Rather than keeping the extra funds in her pocket, Sprunger reached out to Dorothy Drury, executive director of the Kalispell Education Foundation, with the hope of funding a program to honor the legacy of her father.

Drury said that when Sprunger reached out to KEF, it was “perfect timing.”

A donor in 2020 had jumpstarted an after-school tutoring program at Glacier High School, which gave students the opportunity to spend time with teachers one-on-one and hone in on skills they were missing during regular instructional time. Attendees could receive help in English, math and other subjects, four days a week, from late September through early May.

Though an initial donation had funded the program at Glacier, KEF and the Kalispell schools hadn’t been able to bring the program to Flathead. Suddenly, with Sprunger’s funding, they could.

“There’s just something different about having that program available for the student who might not be brave enough, or might to be familiar enough to know that they can ask a teacher for help,” Drury said.

Gary Burt (left) and Kathleen (Kay) Riedel Burt (right) in 1996. Photo courtesy of Courtenay Sprunger.

In the eyes of Sprunger and KEF, the after-school program carries on Gary Burt’s mission of meeting students where they are and creating diverse paths to educational success.

“Her dad really was always looking to push the boundary of what was considered standard and really looking for new, and what would eventually become instrumental, ways that we teach,” Drury said about Burt.

The Flathead High School after-school tutoring program will begin in the fall and run through the school year with the $10,000 donation.

Sprunger said that she hopes the program gives students confidence that “somebody is there that’s invested and believes in them.”

She added, “If Gary Burt was here, he’d be signed up to volunteer to help in the tutoring lab.”