Faculty Focus: Q&A with Tom Thibodeau

Tuesday, April 11, 2023
Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau speaks at the 2023 Community Conversation on Servant Leadership. Check out the Flickr photo gallery to see more pictures from the event.

In his 40 years at Viterbo University, Tom Thibodeau has become an integral part of the institution, a walking reminder of Viterbo's mission and the Franciscan values on which it was founded. Since joining Viterbo’s religious studies department as a full-time faculty member in 1984, he has earned a well-deserved reputation as a master teacher, gifted storyteller, inspirational speaker, and tireless advocate for servant leadership.

A native of Wisconsin Rapids, Thibodeau earned bachelor’s degrees in English and psychology from St. John’s University in Minnesota, before studying in Seattle University’s religious education graduate program and earning a master’s degree in human and religious studies from Saint Mary’s University in Winona.

Before coming to Viterbo, Thibodeau would not have foreseen a long career in academia. For several years, he was a lay minister in British Columbia, Canada, teaching religious education to children and adults and coaching a First Nation basketball team. That experience taught him a major lesson, he said: “I learned what’s important in life … people!”

Tom Thibodeau

Thibodeau moved to La Crosse in 1976, working as a supervisor and later director of childcare at St. Michael’s Home for Children, an orphanage started by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, the founders of Viterbo. When St. Michael’s closed, he worked as assistant director of the Upward Project at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, recruiting and supervising tutor counselors. He also started his work as religious education coordinator for confirmation programs for a La Crosse Catholic parish.

His journey at Viterbo started as an adjunct instructor, teaching one religious studies class. It didn’t take long for him to make his mark once he joined the faculty full time—he was named Viterbo Teacher of the Year in 1987. That was the same year he started a tradition of teaching his students the experience of being homeless by spending an evening outside on Assisi Courtyard in mid-February.

“One thing I really try to teach is eliminating the words ‘those people,’” Thibodeau said. “We’re all human beings worthy of dignity and respect.”

Dignity, respect, and a sense of community were behind the establishment of the Place of Grace Catholic Worker House in 1997, an exercise in “radical hospitality” for which Thibodeau was one of the driving forces. Countless Viterbo students have learned valuable lessons in community service at Place of Grace.

By 1994, Thibodeau had begun pushing for Viterbo to establish a servant leadership master’s degree program, something that finally happened in 2001. “The servant leader possesses skills that influence people to enthusiastically work toward goals for the common good with character that inspires confidence,” he explained. “Dedicated to service, sacrifice, and love, the servant leader also sets aside their own wants and needs to seek the greatest good for all by extending themselves to others in order to meet their legitimate needs and seek their greatest good.”

Tom Thibodeau

This year marks 20 years since the first cohort of servant leadership grad students completed their studies. In 2009, Viterbo appointed Thibodeau as distinguished professor of servant leadership. He continues to oversee the master’s degree program, in addition to teaching servant leadership in online certificate programs and community classes in Wausau and La Crosse, and hosting an annual two-day servant leadership conference.

Beyond Viterbo and his home stomping grounds, he is in high demand as an inspirational speaker on servant leadership, giving 60 to 70 talks and workshops per year across the country and internationally. Thibodeau and his longtime friend, singer/songwriter/activist Larry Long, also have a weekly podcast called Conspiracy of Goodness that combines music and storytelling on a wide variety of themes.

Since earning the Viterbo Teacher of the Year Award in 1987, Thibodeau has been honored numerous times by Viterbo and the community, including the Iverson Freking Ecumenical Recognition Award from Bethany St. Joseph (1991); Viterbo Exemplar of Mission Award (1998); Spheres of Influence Award from the Franciscan Skemp Foundation (1999); Mardi Gras Rex and Queen (2000, with wife, Priscilla); the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse Wall of Fame Award (2008); Oktoberfest Maple Leaf Parade marshal (2009); Viterbo’s Bill Medland Faithful Servant Award (2014); Wisconsin Collaborative Leader of the Year Award from the Collaborative Leadership Network (2014); Viterbo’s Sr. Helen Elsbernd Distinguished Service Award (2014), and La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award (2021).

How (and/or why) did you come to be at Viterbo?

In a way, it was a calling. In 1983, I literally was given a call by Sr. Arita Dopkins, the chair of the Viterbo religious studies department, who invited me to teach one class as an adjunct. Then a position opened up for a full-time religious studies teacher because Sr. Kathleen Kenkel was asked by the Sisters to start the Franciscan Spirituality Center. So Sr. Arita hired me. I’m just so grateful to be here.

What do you love most about teaching at Viterbo?

One, I consider myself a steward of a legacy not my own. I carry on the tradition of faithful service and ethical leadership that was begun by the FSPA from the moment they got here and carried on in their institutional work. I had first worked with the FSPA at St. Michael’s Home for Children, which was an orphanage they had begun here in La Crosse.

Secondly, I’m just so grateful for our students, how committed they are to their education, but also how committed they are to a common good. They come from families that have worked hard. These are people who believe in the common good. These are people who believe in our institution. These are people who are humble servants in their own rights. Our students value their education and the opportunity that they are given to serve others.

What inspires you?

What inspires me each and every day is the Gospel. I’m inspired by people of faith who are willing to sacrifice for a good greater than themselves.

What advice would you give to students regarding heading out into “the real world?”

My advice is look to do something that’s significant, not cosmetic. Continue to listen, discern, be curious about a purpose greater than yourself.

Do you have a little-known fun fact about yourself that would surprise students?

I’m a founding member of the Place of Grace, which has been in existence for 26 years, only three blocks from the campus, literally trying to love your neighbor as you love yourself. We at Viterbo are good neighbors.

What do others say about you?

I think what would be most important would be from my wife, and she’d say, “He’s a work in progress.” I’m not what I want to be, I’m not what I ought to be, but I’m better than who I previously was. That’s why Robert Greenleaf in his book called servant leadership “the journey into legitimate greatness.” It’s always a process of becoming the person we were created to be.

(NOTE: Tom did not provide any testimonials, but it's not hard to find people who have high praise for him. A few examples are offered below.)

Sue Sieger '06, MASL graduate: "Tom is an incredible teacher, listener, and friend.  Every time I talk with him, I learn something new and leave feeling inspired.  He has an amazing ability to make you feel like you are the only person in a room filled with people.  He has an amazing memory and can say things about you that leave you feeling heard.  I can feel his light when I am in his presence. "

Christine Newkirk '06, MASL graduate: Tom has a sense of fun-loving and creative engagement as a teacher.  I have been to his house boat with our MASL class for a relaxing cook-out dinner together, to demonstrate hospitality, community, and the importance of leisure time as a leader. I have been to Leo & Leona’s Tavern and Dancehall, which Tom and a group of his friends own, to listen to music and share sacred stories also ways to build deep and lasting relationships. 

Other students had this to say:

  • I don't even know where to begin with this man. His class doesn't feel like a class. If you come in and you are feeling down, he will pick you up and make you feel so much better about yourself. He is a GREAT guy. He makes everyone want to save the world.
  • “This class and Tom blew my mind. He has literally changed my life. There are no words to express my gratitude for being able to meet this man.
  • “Tom is a great professor; his class is a must if you go to Viterbo. He is a great person and has only good in him.”
  • “Absolutely an unbelievable person. I have definitely changed my views of the world because of this man. He is amazing.
  • “I absolutely LOVED Tom. He is such a caring and compassionate guy. Tom made me want to be a better person and really gets you thinking. He's kind of like a motivational speaker.