Students and staff at Chippewa Valley Technical College’s returning from the Thanksgiving break found a winter wonderland had appeared inside the Heath Education Center (HEC). Snowmen stood on the ledge over the front entryway. Evergreen roping wrapped its way around rails and pillars. Snowflakes hung as if suspended in mid-air.
Every year, HEC has the distinction of being the only one of CVTC’s many facilities to have extensive decorations for the holiday season. The reason is simple: it’s where Tom Schwechel works.
Schwechel is in his eighth year as a custodian at HEC, and he likes to decorate, especially for holidays.
“This is just a hobby of mine,” he says.
On the day after Thanksgiving when the College is closed and everyone has the day off, Schwechel comes in on his own time and decorates HEC along some theme he’s selected beforehand. Not only does he go unpaid for his time, he often incurs some expense that comes out of his own pocket.
“I always come in on that Friday after Thanksgiving. There’s no one around, and when they come back, it’s all set up for them,” Tom says.
Tom has been working at CVTC for over 25 years, though for the first 17 he was employed as a food services director for a private contractor.
“I always did some kind of decorating somewhere,” he says. “It kind of came with the job of catering.”
When HEC was under construction in 2004, CVTC announced openings for custodians, and Tom was most interested in becoming a regular CVTC employee. He started thinking about Christmas decorations for the new building before it even opened.
“I saw that ledge over the doorway and said ‘Perfect!’” he says.
Tom had accumulated some excess decorations at home, which he also decorates beautifully, but for a place as big as BEC he needed a lot more. He put out a call for people’s extra artificial Christmas trees or other decorations they weren’t using anymore. “Anything I can get like that I try to incorporate somewhere,” he says.
Over the years, he started to shop the after-Christmas sales when decorations are really cheap. He’s also made a lot of his own decorations. For last year’s candy-themed display, for example, he used packaging items from central receiving.
And there is a theme to each year’s effort. Decorating HEC is not something Tom makes up as he goes along; careful planning is involved. It does take what would be a complete eight-hour work shift to get it all done, and sometimes it takes a little more. Tom generally does all the work himself, but this year his wife came in and helped him a bit with some final touches on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Most people consider putting up or taking down Christmas decorations an unwelcome chore that comes with a fun but busy season. Tom doesn’t look on it as work.
“I say that’s my golf. It’s like going to the golf course for me,” he says, indicating it’s more fun than work. “It’s fun to see it all come together.”
And when it does come together, the feedback he gets from the people who know that he’s the one who does it all is tremendous.
Tom has every intention of continuing to decorate for Christmas as long as he’s with CVTC. “I already have my theme for next year and have started on that,” he says.
And so next year the students and staff at HEC will have something to look forward to when coming back on that Monday after a long four-day Thanksgiving weekend. Tom will have the place looking festive for the holidays once more.