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Moments in Time: Tom Rufenacht
Tom Rufenacht (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - Many people might dread Monday mornings before heading back to the hustle and bustle of the workweek.

But Tom Rufenacht certainly isn't one of them. For more than three decades, he looked forward to his time spent as the director of building and grounds for the Monroe school district.

He planned for his retirement more than once, but until recently, those days came and went.

On Feb. 27, the 68-year-old officially bid adieu to the job he's loved for so long. He's now looking forward and focusing on enjoying life and spending time with family around the town that's brought him wonderful friendships, big accomplishments and so much joy.

Rufenacht was born and raised in Monroe with four siblings. He currently lives in the home where he grew up. His childhood was spent tooling around town and participating in unorganized pick-up games, he said. Attending big family gatherings has left him the fondest of memories.

He attended elementary school at North School shortly and then went to St. Victor. At Monroe High School, he enjoyed playing basketball and wrestled his junior year. After the tornado in 1965, Rufenacht recalls his involvement in the high school Key Club where he and other students were cleaning up in Monroe for three full days.

During high school, Rufenacht worked for his father at his filling station, Rufenacht Oil Co., but said he never really saw a future in the family business.

In his senior year, since he wasn't going to college, he knew he would be drafted. That February, he enlisted with the Navy, saying he hoped to see the world. He headed for boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, after his graduation in 1967.

Moving away from home was scary, Rufenacht recalls. But he was engaged to Sharon, his high school sweetheart, and she was by his side. After boot camp, the couple married that September while he was on leave.

Shortly after, they landed in Charleston, South Carolina. Two months after the couple found an apartment, Rufenacht left for 10 months on a Vietnam cruise that took him around the world one-and-a-half times. Once he returned, he was chosen as part of a crew to stay in the yard as a boiler technician, providing power for the ship.

South Carolina brought several new experiences for the young Wisconsin man.

"I wasn't used to discrimination like that," Rufenacht said. Charleston, a town rich in times past, attracted Rufenacht because history was something he always enjoyed. "It was a completely different world for us."

The summer of 1969, with a strong civil rights movement happening, Rufenacht said they had 6 p.m. curfews to be off of the ship and home, enforced by the National Guard.

His son was also born that year, and Rufenacht was able to get out of the service by 1971. He considered staying, momentarily.

"I couldn't wait to get out," Rufenacht said. "But once the time got close, I had to think long and hard about not re-upping."

Back at home, Rufenacht landed a position at Madison Gas & Electric running the boilers there. He and his young family moved to Sun Prairie and eventually to Madison. But after four years of shift work, he decided to change jobs and began working at the Veterans Hospital in the engineering department.

When he heard of a position opening at the Monroe school district in 1979, Rufenacht applied. He hoped to get back to Monroe to raise his children. He was hired as the school district's building and grounds supervisor. It was a job he enjoyed from the start.

"I loved it," Rufenacht said. "And I still love my work now."

He's cared for the 565,000 square feet of buildings in the school district ever since and said when it came time to retire, he struggled.

"It was the toughest decision I've made in my life, bar none," Rufenacht said.

It's been Rufenacht who has been behind all of the buildings and maintenance projects for the school district over the years. And there have been many. He provided daily upkeep and sought plans for future projects. He has also served as the supervisor of the custodial crew for the district since 1998.

Huge projects have happened for the schools through the years. When the neighborhood schools and some rural schools closed, Rufenacht was there through it all. Buildings then were from the 1800s and were difficult to care for, he recalls.

The middle school reconstruction project in 2000, which more than doubled the size of the building, was one of his most memorable projects. Rufenacht, who is very focused and educated on energy savings, said he's proud that after that addition, the district is still saving money and energy from the boilers.

"I don't think of it as stress," Rufenacht said of the job and the major projects. "I have a great crew that takes ownership, and they make my job easier. They've been around a long time. We work really well together."

Rufenacht has become somewhat of an expert at researching energy savings, being part of audits and organizing plans. A summer work plan for repairs would start in November under his realm. He focused on being proactive instead of reactive, he said, and sometimes worked with little or no funding. The referendum passed last fall will allow many projected needs to be met, he said.

"Every day is different," Rufenacht said. "There's not one day that's like another here."

As retirement crept up on him and as he got older, he said he was waiting for the day when he didn't enjoy going into work.

But that day never came.

"I've always been happy here," Rufenacht said. "I could've applied at a bigger district - but I never thought about it once. I enjoy Monroe. I always have."

"I'm very fortunate," Rufenacht said. "Not many people can say they've really enjoyed their job this much."

He has been a part of several associations through the school district, including the Wisconsin School Safety Association, and has kept up his building operators certificate.

He and his wife are looking forward to enjoying life. Fishing, boating, golfing and enjoying his wood shop are all on his list of things to do. Rufenacht also has grandchildren in the Chicago and Madison areas he loves to spend more time with.

Rufenacht enjoyed fishing trips to Canada with his father and brother for several years. Today, he still loves to fish alongside his son and grandson, who he said are much better than him. He also enjoys attending events for all of his grandchildren.

"I'm not worried about being busy," he said. "I have plenty to do."

Although he saw the world while he was in the service, Rufenacht enjoys traveling in the United States now. He has enjoyed a trip to Fort Meyers Beach for the past 32 years. He hopes one day to travel the eastern coastline to Maine and perhaps see Mount Rushmore again.

Family is important, and Rufenacht said each year he looks forward to an annual bags tournament and big gathering over Thanksgiving.

Monroe, he said, has always been and will always be, home.

"I'm going to die here," Rufenacht said. "This is where I'll be. We have a very close family and we get together often and have a good time together."

Rufenacht lives each day from words spoken by his father, and they have been how he's chosen to lead his life:

"If you work hard you can achieve what you're aiming for," Rufenacht said. "And it doesn't have to be money - it has to be what you enjoy."