“They are not called ‘climbs’ they are called slides.... no tag on the playground equipment ... hey, no one jumps out of a swing on my playground... Hey, Grace, why can’t Ryan play with you?”
For the past 30 years, walk by the elementary playground at West Central Area North, and you could hear Mrs. Ladwig thus exhorting children under her watch... or moderating disputes. Karen Ladwig is retiring as playground supervisor and paraprofessional at North, on October 14.
She grew up in Fergus Falls and went to elementary school there.
“I played school when I was a kid... I guess it paid off,” she said.
When Ladwig was a senior, her dad moved to Elbow Lake where he had a television repair business. At first Ladwig didn’t want to move and lived with grandparents in Fergus Falls. But she spent the last six months of her senior year at Elbow Lake-Wendell High School, and graduated from there in 1966. She says she is glad she got to learn from legendary band director Gordy Peterson.
After marrying Charlie Ladwig, the couple moved to Staples for a while as Charlie went to school. Karen got a job as a paraprofessional for a band director and loved it. When they moved back to Elbow Lake, they rented a place north of Elbow Lake, but eventually moved to Charlie’s home place after his parents had passed away.
The couple raised four children, and once they were all in school, Karen accepted a job at what was then Elbow Lake-Wendell Elementary School back in 1985.
“I’m the only one left from those days here,” she said.
Ladwig seldom takes a sick day, but did miss some time nine years ago when she suffered a brain aneurism.
She has also spent time as a paraprofessional in the Chapter 1 and Title 1 programs, as well as Kindergarten, but says the best time of the day is out on the playground.
“I love those little monkeys.”
She said the number one thing she is concerned about is safety. That’s why she keeps a tight rein on things. But she also feels it is her responsibility to make sure that no one is left out.
“I check on kids sitting in the corner.”
Although things in the classrooms have changed a lot in 30 years, on the playground, kids will be kids. Ladwig said the boys still love playing kickball, 500, and two-handed touch football.
“No tackling! But they sure try.”
When the 5th and 6th graders were part of North, Ladwig said the girls liked to practice cheerleading. But now girls are pretty occupied with climbing, swinging, and socializing.
“I don’t like cliques and try to include everyone,” said Ladwig.
She is also on the lookout for bullying and is glad there is an official procedure in place at WCA. She reports bullying to the Elementary Principal or Dean of Students.
“Bullying can be serious and lead to some real problems.”
Ladwig is outside on the playground every morning before school, at noon, and after school until all the kids are on a bus. She does this every day, unless the temperatures are zero or below, or the wind chill is ten degrees below zero or colder. Then she supervises in the gym, which can get very crowded and loud, especially over noon hour.
For winter playground supervision, Ladwig purchased a brown goose down long coat several years ago, and one of the children said she looked like a Tootsie Roll. That morphed into “Tootsie Grandma” a name she is proud to be called.
Maybe because she stresses safety, there have been very few accidents on her playground. Once a boy broke his wrist sliding down a hill of snow, and another time a kid lost a tooth... in the snow... and Ladwig found it!
She finds something to like in every kid, but admits some kids are tough to get along with.
“But you just do it.”
Being a grandmother of three, she sees the pressure young children are under these days and says that at least half of the kids on the playground are from broken homes, so she cuts them some slack.
Ladwig said that while she will miss the kids, she will not miss the cold winter drives to work. And she has plenty to keep her busy. She loves kayaking, reading, and watching YouTube on her Smart TV. Every January for nearly 20 years, she and Charlie would go on a trip to the Bahamas, Hawaii, or Mexico that he earned through his work. She would like to revisit some of those places when the snow falls. She wouldn’t mind packing up the new car she just bought for retirement and driving somewhere, perhaps to visit friends who have also retired. And there are plenty of books she hasn’t read yet.
But before she leaves the playground for good, she has something to do.
“Every year, at least once, I slide down the biggest slide on the playground. Not the covered one, but the open slide. I’ve still got to do that.”