The first days of freshman year can be intimidating for any high school student. It was no different for Ever Clinton.
When she began attending Messmer High School, she “wasn’t much of a talker.” Instead, she excelled academically, finding a way to express herself in honors classes. Greg Flattery’s choir rehearsals and Tim Gallagher’s English class were among her favorites.
But one of the most prominent influences on Clinton’s years at Messmer was not a teacher; it was building and grounds supervisor Tom Ludorf, a 1974 Messmer graduate, who has worked at the school for the past 13 years.
“Mr. Ludorf’s friendliness gave me a voice at Messmer. He constantly had jokes and he helped me open my locker and every year after that,” she said. “He was a huge welcome sign because he is much taller than I am … I looked up to him. Like, literally!”
In fact, Ludorf’s friendship and support meant so much to Clinton that in the summer of 2013 she wrote a letter to him expressing just how much he meant to her. Accompanying the note was a hand-drawn portrait of him.
“It just tickled me to death,” said Ludorf. Clinton gave him the letter after her graduation, when she had returned to Messmer to volunteer at a volleyball camp. “I knew we were good buddies because she was one of my kids who would every day be at the door when I opened up. I had no idea how significantly (I had impacted her) until the letter and the portrait.”
In the letter, Clinton told Ludorf that his “big, warm smile” helped her get through the first few days of highschool. “You welcomed me with jokes that were actually funny and made me feel at home,” she wrote. “Thank you for teaching me how to be a good, kind person with a slamming personality.”
For Ludorf, Clinton’s gratitude is welcome affirmation that his teaching style is effective – even though he is a member of the non-teaching staff.
“I value interactions that I have with the kids,” he said.
The students call him “Mr. Tom” and “Mr. Lu,” and he said he is proud to be a positive, safe male presence in their lives.
Aside from being an alumnus, Ludorf’s connection to Messmer runs deep. His parents graduated from the school in the 1950s, and all seven of his brothers and sisters did as well. His mother even ran the cafeteria for six years.
When Ludorf returned to work at Messmer 13 years ago, he became the boss of several employees he had known during his high school days. He initiated an overhaul in how the student body views the maintenance staff.
“We don’t have any janitors here,” he said. “We only have maintenance people…. We are not your slaves. We are here to help you if you need help. Everything you needed to know you learned in kindergarten – ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ and ‘good morning’ and all that good stuff.
“It was something that was ingrained in me when I first started here, is that we were all educators of some sort so the part that I could educate them on was social skills that will help them the rest of their life. Common courtesy works way better than ‘do for me.’”
The lessons definitely had an impact on Clinton.
“Although I learned many things from class, he taught me how to be a good person because of the way he presented himself,” she said. “He exuded godliness. You could tell this because he really cared for the students … and he helped everyone with anything, even if he was doing something else.”
Clinton is also grateful for the life advice Ludorf offered her.
“He stressed how important it was to sleep even if I had to get homework done. (Sometimes) I was a walking zombie due to absent-homework that piled up. He supported everything I did, from volleyball to Fine Arts Night at Messmer. He voted for my work both years I was involved.”
As a future architect, she found it easier to express herself through art, which was why she drew the portrait.
“Sometimes I get choked up when I am overwhelmed with emotions, so I draw. I drew Mr. Ludorf’s smile, since that was the first thing I experienced with him. He is an awesome soul who deserves the universe.”
“There is no question that Tom is an essential part of the culture here at Messmer,” said principal Todd Willems. “He and all our support staff care every bit as much about our students as our teachers do. Whether it’s through a warm meal, a safe hallway, a clean classroom, a well-maintained heating system, running computers or a friendly voice answering the phone, our support staff demonstrates their care and passion for the mission of the Messmer Catholic Schools every day.”
Clinton is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she juggles school and an internship with Workshop Architects.
Whatever the future holds for her, she will always remember Tom Ludorf’s smile.
“Someone asked me have I ever saw an angel before. I thought about it and said yes,” she said. “They thought I was lying, but I said Mr. Ludorf is an angel. He may be head maintenance to you all, but he is an angel to me.”