LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - The La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce named a familiar face as its Community Service honoree, but like so many of us, Tom Thibodeau has had to face the changes of this new virtual reality.
He’s described as compassionate and community-minded.
“Tom has a real good heart,” said Richard Kyte, Director of the D.B. Reinhart Center for Ethics. “He’s a generous person.”
Viterbo President Glena Temple added, “Tom wants to reach people. Tom wants to make a difference.”
Now, he’s more connected than ever.
“Here’s my favorite line,” said Thibodeau. “I’m a Boomer who’s now a Zoomer.”
“I think that describes Tom well,” Temple laughed. “I remember when he first started using texting on a flip phone.”
A man known for his message, Thibodeau is finding new ways to continue to share that message in the virtual world.
“[At the beginning of the pandemic] I was so worried about getting it right that I forgot about that I forgot about this is a place for human interaction and how can we make that the most welcoming, hospitable place possible,” said Thibodeau.
He maintains that sense of hospitality even when the “place” is in front of a screen.
Temple said, “He continues to reach the thousands of people a year that he speaks to and teaches servant leadership too...If this is the vehicle he has to use, he’ll use any vehicle he can.”
“One of the things I find so remarkable about Tom is his endless curiosity,” said Kyte. “He’s always reading new things and trying to find ways of how do we take timeless wisdom and current research and put them together to inform and educate people in leadership roles.”
“He just seems to give, and give, and give in any way that he can,” Temple added.
Called to serve
Tom remembers when he was blessed with that giving spirit, recounting the story of more than a half century ago like it was yesterday.
“When I was 12, my mother suffered from Postpartum Depression,” recalls Thibodeau. “She gave birth to my youngest sister. I'm the oldest of six, and she was hospitalized. We're living in Wisconsin Rapids. We don't have any family there. My father had to ask six different families to take in his children. So, I was given over to a family that had a boy that was a year older than I was. I shared his bedroom. I was in their house, very much estranged, I didn't know this family at all. I'm by myself. I go back to school, no one's talking about my mom's in a psychiatric ward. One night, I'm by myself in bed, looking outside and crying, and I just prayed, ‘God, please take care of my mom. Please take care of our family. Please help me.’ At 12 years of age, I felt this presence that I was loved, and there was a level of understanding that it would be okay.
“About two weeks later I'm with my dad. We're alone, and I said, ‘Who's helping mom?’ He said, ‘A psychologist.’ I said, ‘What do you need to be a psychologist?’ [He said,] ‘Well, you go to college, get a degree in psychology, go on and get a masters degree.’ And I said, ‘I want to do that. I want to help other people that are helping my mom.’ At age 12 I had a life of prayer and service. That's been the foundation of my whole life. It’s something that you’re called to do, not a sense of obligation. Service is love made visible.”
It’s a love that cannot be stopped, neither by virtual nor physical setbacks.
“I heard the other day he gave a session the other day on well-being after he was recovering from an unfortunate fall. He doesn’t even take the time to heal himself, he helps other people heal in these incredible times,” Temple said.
Kyte said, “He’s always concerned about the least in our society. Who are the people that we tend to overlook that might not always have the advantages that others have? He’s looking to say, if we have leadership roles, part of our responsibility is to care for others.”
“When I go out and talk to alumni, I get chills hearing the stories of they didn’t realize it in the time, but two, three, ten years later, they remember what Tom taught them and the work he did,” said Temple.
Tom's network of support
While Thibodeau’s impact resonates through whatever conduit he channels it, his work is powered by those of the closest connection.
“The real recognition belongs to my wife and to my daughters,” said Thibodeau. “Any of us who get an opportunity to serve, it’s only because of the people who love us and encourage us and make sacrifices on our behalf. I could not have done anything in this community had it not been for the love, support, understanding and forgiveness of my wife and children. So that’s where my gratitude comes from. I’m so grateful then when I see other people serving in the community because I know their families too are making the same sacrifices so that I may enjoy the quality of life that we enjoy together.”