Melissa Baten Caswell, a former Palo Alto Unified School District board member and longtime community volunteer, died on Monday, Feb. 6, from pancreatic cancer. She was 58.
Baten Caswell's involvement in local schools spanned decades, including 13 years serving on the Palo Alto Unified board starting in 2007 and an unsuccessful bid for the Santa Clara County Board of Education in 2020.
Born in White Plains, New York, Baten Caswell and her husband, Lee Caswell, moved to Palo Alto in 1990, where they made their home and raised two children.
She earned her undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and an MBA from Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, where she met her husband. After moving to Palo Alto, Baten Caswell worked in marketing roles for tech companies, including Apple and Sun Microsystems.
She left tech to spend more time with her children, according to a family obituary, but soon took on leadership roles in local schools, including serving as PTA Council president. She was also a founding board member of the nonprofit Youth Community Service.
According to Caswell, his wife's interest in education was focused on how to create a passion and love of learning in students, as well as finding ways to get Palo Alto residents working toward common goals.
"She was really invested in how to go and bring the communities together," Caswell said.
News of her death sparked an outpouring of support and condolences from the community, including more than 60 comments left on a message that her husband posted on the website CaringBridge announcing her death.
The Palo Alto City Council held a moment of silence for Baten Caswell on Monday and adjourned its meeting in her honor. Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims cited Baten Caswell's many years of public service.
"We've lost a cherished member of our community," Lythcott-Haims said.
Council member Pat Burt noted her courage in the face of declining health.
"For those who have known her and followed her struggles in recent years with her battles, she was just incredibly courageous throughout this entire period of time, maintained a very positive approach and was a real inspiration," Burt said.
While serving on Palo Alto's school board, Baten Caswell helped lead the district through periods of upheaval, including a federal Title IX investigation into sexual misconduct, teen suicide clusters, the renaming of two middle schools and the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the beginning of her time on the school board, she worked to develop a strategic plan for the district, bringing in the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company to help develop the document.
"That was a huge lift when she first came in, and she was very proud of that," Caswell said.
She also served as president of the Santa Clara County School Boards Association and was a member of the California School Boards Association, California Association of Suburban School Districts and Schools for Sound Finance.
What stood out for Heidi Emberling, who served with Baten Caswell on the school board from 2012 to 2016, was the way that her colleague was able to keep the interests of families at the center of her work.
"She was always optimistic. She always looked for the way forward," Emberling said. "If there was a barrier, she looked for ways to dismantle it."
The two stayed in touch after Emberling left the board and became close friends. Sigrid Pinsky similarly met Baten Caswell when they both served on the PTA Council, but stayed close afterward. Pinsky was struck by Baten Caswell's dedication to hearing what people were experiencing and finding ways to provide support.
"She paid attention and brought up issues and fought hard for what she cared about," Pinsky said. "Our children benefited greatly. Our teachers benefited greatly."
In her personal life, Baten Caswell had a love of art and cooking. According to Caswell, his wife was an accomplished painter, focusing on watercolors and oil painting, as well as charcoal. She also created her own jewelry, including making her husband's wedding ring. Baten Caswell served as a board member of the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation.
She also loved trying to make new foods, including various pastries, Caswell said. A favorite of family and friends was the sherry cake that she would hand out around the holidays, he said.
"She built lifelong relationships and was always there for her family and friends," an obituary from the family said. "She was a source of strength and inspiration with a smile and energy that could move mountains."
Baten Caswell is survived by her husband; their children, Lainie and Cas Caswell; her sisters, Amanda Baten and Blythe Witt; and her mother, Susan Jill Baten.
The family requests donations to Adolescent Counseling Services in lieu of flowers.