Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Professor Tom Thibodeau has inspired students for two decades

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Viterbo University professor Tom Thibodeau gets ready to serve dinner at Place of Grace Catholic Worker House on Hood Street in La Crosse. He says he tries to live by what he calls the 11th commandment: “Though shalt not stand idly by.”

You’ve got to take Thibodeau. It’s the one piece of advice department Chairman Earl Madary gives every religious studies/ philosophy student at Viterbo University.

“You will seldom find someone in your life who is as passionate and committed as you will find in Tom Thibodeau,” he tells them. “His commitment to learning, justice, peace, whatever you want to fill in that blank, it’s going to be awful hard to find someone like Tom.”

Thibodeau is an associate professor who has taught at Viterbo since 1984 and lives by what he calls the 11th commandment — thou shalt not stand idly by. Besides being a popular professor, he is known for his numerous community efforts, which include helping found the Place of Grace, and for his public speaking talent. Place of Grace Catholic Worker House is a free meal site and drop-in center near the Viterbo campus.

“If he said he was going to give a talk on cardboard boxes, there would be people lined up to hear him talk,” said Sue Sieger, a former student of his and general manager of Benefits Design Group Inc. in Onalaska. “He’s one of those people, you can be in a group, a crowd, and when he talks to you or you talk to him, everyone else disappears.”

Thibodeau landed at Viterbo in 1983, when he was the 17th person called to teach a prayer and spirituality course. What’s kept him there for 23 years is the belief this is the work God wants him to do.

“I’m humbled to think people work two part-time jobs they don’t necessarily like in order to have enough money to sit in my class, that parents drive a car that’s 10 years old so their children can sit in my class,” he said during an interview in his office.

“What makes me worthy of that sacrifice?” he asked. “Every day, I consider it a privilege and a gift to be able to teach.”

The oldest of six, he grew up in Wisconsin Rapids and wasn’t a “typical teenager,” said Janice Gerlach, a Holmen High School guidance counselor and Thibodeau’s baby sister.

“He was in athletics and had friends, but they were never a priority,” she said. “He was always more concerned with global issues, and how he could help his world.”

After earning his undergraduate degree in psychology from St. John’s University in Minnesota, he worked with students and put on retreats for the Frontier Apostolate, a lay ministry organization in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada.

He moved to La Crosse in January 1976 to work at St. Michael’s Home for Children. Co-worker Sister Dolorice Schier, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, remembers him bonding with both the children and staff, and doing whatever needed to be done.

“We liked him just an awful lot,” Schier said. “You can put all the beautiful adjectives you want toward him, and they would work. He was good.” [...Snip] LaCrosse Tribune

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