Note to readers: To protect the privacy of Merrill School’s special ed students, we agreed not to use their names. Their quotes, taken from the poster they made, speak for themselves.
ROCK FALLS –He’s not a big guy, but still, those tiny plastic chairs can’t be comfortable.
But that doesn’t stop 80-year-old retired teacher Bill Ludwig from plunking down in one at least three mornings a week as a volunteer in Jan Whitlock’s third-grade special ed class at Merrill School.
On Friday, dressed in sneakers, jeans and a soft gray sweatshirt that complemented the silver of his beard, the softness of his voice, Mr. Ludwig sat in one of those chairs, at a low-to-the-ground table, working with a honey of a boy.
The boy’s black-brown eyes were intense as he and Mr. Ludwig talked about Max’s pony, who had run away in the earthquake.
“If his pony runs away, what’s going to happen to Max? How is he going to get home?” he asked the boy, gently coaxing a conversation about the story his young charge had read. You’d never know it was a lesson in reading comprehension.
“The kids love him, especially the boys,” Whitlock said. “They can’t wait for him to come. He’s very kind and gentle with them. He never has a cross word to say.”
He’s modest, she added. He treats the kids with respect. But his greatest talent? “He’s really awesome with making the kids feel good about themselves.”
Mr. Ludwig’s devotion to these kids – devotion, truly; he can’t hide it – earned him one of this year’s Bi-County Cooperative Foundation Unsung Hero awards.
He was presented a certificate at the foundation’s annual scholarships and awards banquet Thursday. He was surprised, he said, and very grateful.
But you couldn’t help but think that the greater gift came Friday, when his kids presented him with a poster full of cards and pictures they had created, thanking him for ... well, being him.
“Mr. Ludwig Thank you for takeing care of us. You are the best the hole class loves you.”
“Oh, bless their souls. Isn’t that priceless?” he said, a smile of sheer joy spreading across his face. “That’s the frosting on the cake.”
That love, it runs both ways.
“You mean so much to me. Thank you for spending all your time with us. It makes me feel happy.”
Merrill is not a rich school, and the special ed kids really have special needs. Many come from broken homes, have parents struggling just to keep their heads above water, sometimes don’t get enough to eat.
He helps these struggling students with their reading, their writing, their spelling. But his most important job, he says, “is just talking to them and getting to know them.”
They “are desperately in need of love and attention,” he said.
And that’s something that Mr. Ludwig, as the kids are required to call him (although sometimes they slip and call him dude, as he does them), gives them in spades.
“Dear Mr. Ludwg thank you for what you did for us you are the best helper in the wold I love you for everything you did.”
It’s not just his time.
Mr. Ludwig, who taught in the Erie school system for 38 years before he retired, also brings Fruit Loops – for kids who didn’t make it in time for the free breakfast. And snacks. He brought socks at Christmas. So they wouldn’t be left out, he paid for his kids to participate in the school’s Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser.
“Thank you for every thing you did I flee happ. You get me stuff I need you are a hero.”
Bill Ludwig lives in Sterling, where he graduated from high school in 1952. He loves to garden, and he’s an avid reader.
He also volunteers at the Caring Place in Sterling a couple of days a week. He likes to keep busy.
Early in his career, he was a teacher at a boarding school for boys in Turkey. His mom was a foster grandparent; that’s how he got interested in working with young children in area schools. He volunteered at Dillon School before Merrill.
He’s been at Merrill for 4 years. He also works with its special ed fourth-graders.
He’s grandfatherly in every sense of the word, although he never married, never had kids of his own.
“This is my family,” he said.
He encourages anyone and everyone to volunteer at a school. Helping these students has been one of the best things he’s ever done.
“The only tragedy is they leave you,” he said. “and you don’t know where they go or what they become.”
“Your the best teacher ever and every day you help me with my morning work. So i mad you dis card. I love you.”
So do we.
“I think you are sweet Mr. Ludwig. You rock the hole wide world.”
You are. You do.
“Let your greatness fly, Mr. Ludwg.”
Don’t think you could stop it, even if you tried.