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Postal Service Cites Worker Who Never Let Handicap Get in His Way

June 16, 1988|MICHAEL MILSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

Towering 6 feet 4 inches in height, with a firm handshake and a friendly demeanor, Thomas Ludovico appears anything but handicapped.

But in May, Ludovico, 36, was named the U.S. Postal Service's outstanding handicapped employee of 1988.

Although grateful for the honor, he's also uncomfortable about it. "All my life I've tried to be normal," he said emphatically. "Now I'm getting an award for not being normal."

While Ludovico does not try to hide the effects of the crippling cerebral palsy that has dogged him since birth, neither does he allow them to obscure his own accomplishments.

He walks with a slight limp in his right leg, and his right hand is a little smaller and weaker than his left. He puts visitors at ease with occasional jokes about his disabilities.

"My handicap does not get in my way," said the former mail carrier, now a director of field operations for the Pasadena Post Office, overseeing 12 post offices across the San Gabriel Valley. "It gets in other people's way, but not mine. I've always managed to do anything I ever really wanted to do."

Among his hobbies are hang gliding and wind surfing.

Ludovico has come a long way since being chosen the National Cerebral Palsy Poster Child in 1954 at the age of 3.

That was the year he walked for the first time, an initial step away from disability and toward a normal life. It was also when doctors discovered that he had epilepsy.

All through his adolescence, Ludovico underwent treatment and therapy, including long stints of wearing leg braces for the cerebral palsy, and he was heavily medicated for his epilepsy. Doctors suggested that he be placed in a home for disabled children, but his mother--to whom he gives most of the credit for his success--refused.

Growing up Catholic in downtown Los Angeles, Ludovico attended a parochial school through the eighth grade. But in ninth grade, his epilepsy worsened, forcing him to finish that year via telephone conference calls with teachers and classmates.

Those years were "the most difficult part of my life," he recalled in an interview at his Pasadena office. That was also when his self-deprecating sense of humor fully evolved, partly as a defense against mocking classmates and partly as a way to put others at ease about his disability.

After attending the J. P. Whitney High School for the physically handicapped, Ludovico majored in environmental science at UCLA, graduating in 1976. By that time, his epilepsy had disappeared.

Wanting to work outdoors, he sought a job as a mail carrier. He got a job with the Postal Service in Malibu, but a supervisor told him he could never become a carrier because he couldn't meet the physical requirements.

But two years later, after a stint as a hang-gliding instructor, Ludovico was a mail carrier in Pasadena.

"Because I was disabled, at least in a way, I had to prove myself," he said. "I did better than normal work because I had to; I'd skip lunch and come back early to impress them that I was determined."

Rave Reviews

He quickly moved up the ladder, with rave reviews from colleagues, becoming Sierra Madre's postmaster in January, 1987, and then moving into his present position last month.

"Tom's a great guy to work with, and he is a great guy in general, too," said Monrovia Postmaster Joyce Steele, Ludovico's predecessor in Sierra Madre. "I was always looking beyond the handicap, so I usually didn't even notice it."

After Steele badgered him for two years, Ludovico finally allowed her to nominate him for the Outstanding Handicapped Employee Award. "While I wasn't completely comfortable with it," he said, "I finally decided maybe I could show some kids out there that they can do good things with their lives."

Representing the Postal Service's Western region, Ludovico was chosen from among six nominees, one from each of the agency's geographic regions.

"So here they're giving me this handicapped award," he mused. "I don't really feel handicapped. But I guess maybe I don't have a problem with the award, but maybe I have a problem with myself."

Volunteer Work

Now that he has achieved role model status, Ludovico has pledged to do volunteer work for the National Cerebral Palsy Assn., which helped provide therapy for him as he grew up.

In his acceptance speech at a Washington ceremony, Ludovico said: "As a child, discrimination was a cruelty I didn't understand. As I got older, I realized it was a perception problem I would never understand.

"I know nobody wants to be on a losing team. But shouldn't everybody be given the chance to lose? They might surprise you and win."

Ludovico's new office has lilac walls, a leftover from the woman who occupied it before him. The walls are bare. He doesn't mind, he said, since he tries to spend most of his days out of the office, with people.

Even the handsome wood-grain plaque and certificate, which the postmaster general gave him in recognition of what Ludovico laughingly calls "the Gimp of the Year award," is not hanging in his office. It's at home. In a closet.

"It's a real nice award," he said. "And I'll take it out and show people if they ask. But ever since I was a little kid, no matter the problems, I've wanted to be myself. And I still do.

"Besides, I claim to be modest."

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