St. Paul members Craig and Judy Wurdinger both had a clear idea of what they were meant to do with their lives. For Craig, thanks to his family and influential coaches, it was always basketball. And for Judy, it was the guidance of a social worker and the encouragement of a school counselor. Now, Craig and Judy are fulfilling the same inspirational roles for students.
Never say never
A phonetically pleasing name and a memorable highway sign point to where Judy Wurdinger grew up. The small dairy farm town of Zwingle, Iowa, just an hour north of Davenport, resides in Dubuque and Jackson Counties. Judy attended high school in Dubuque and, after a difficult time during her adolescence, found herself doing something she never really thought was in the cards for her: going to college.
“Getting a college degree wasn’t anything that was talked about at home. If it wasn’t for my school counselor, I would never have taken the ACT and wouldn’t have gone to college,” Judy said. “I didn’t see college as a door that was open for me, but my guidance counselor did. It’s important for adults to never say never or judge kids based on what they see on paper.”
After finishing her undergraduate degree in social work at the University of Northern Iowa, Judy continued her education, obtaining her Master of Social Work from the University of Iowa. She always knew she wanted to work with youth, inspired by the social worker who helped her on the right path during her challenging years growing up, but finding her way into the schools took a little longer.
Working in the schools wasn’t Judy’s initial focus. Her minor was Criminology and Corrections, initially working with troubled adolescents throughout her college journey, internships, and volunteer work. She started her career in a 24-hour residential care program for youth. Years later, finding her way into the schools, she helps kids before they enter the criminal justice system.
“At the schools, you have an opportunity to be more on the front line and preventative. I credit some significant people in my high school journey, so I knew what that future could look like for kids and help guide others through that,” Judy said. “Somehow, I ended up exactly where I was supposed to be. I didn’t see that at the time, but this is my calling. I fell into school social work but this is what I was supposed to be doing.”
Taking it in stride
Just a few hours away from Zwingle, Craig Wurdinger was honing his basketball skills on the court in Waverly, Iowa. Craig grew up in a sports and basketball family and had an idea of the direction his life would take. Craig was an all-state player for Waverly-Shell Rock.
“Basketball consumed me. Basketball opened doors for me that otherwise may not have opened. It was the tool and the avenue.”
After graduating from Wartburg, Craig attended Minnesota State working as a graduate assistant while earning his master’s in administration and psychology. After spending six years teaching and coaching in St. Cloud, MN, he moved back to Dubuque to be closer to family. There he taught and coached at Wahlert Catholic School for 10 years before making his way to Davenport Central High School.
“When I was living in Dubuque, I knew I wanted to get into the public school system. I had a good friend from Dubuque, Brian Ehlinger, that was a coach at Davenport Central. He encouraged me to come here. Brian Ehlinger is now the principal at Central High School.”
Craig coached basketball and taught Health and Physical Education at Central. At both Wahlert and Davenport Central, Craig led his teams to success. He coached five Wahlert teams to the state tournament, winning three conference titles in 10 seasons. Wurdinger then took over the Blue Devils at Davenport Central. His time at both schools included 15 all-state players and earned him state coach of the year honors in 2008.
“My philosophy on the court is very similar to that in the classroom. It’s about patience,” Craig said. “You hope by the time you’re done coaching or teaching them that you’ll see the results, but it takes time. A lot of kids will come back and thank me for providing some of the discipline they needed. It’s rewarding to see the impact that had on their lives. When I was younger, I was a little stricter. As I got older, I gained more wisdom and patience.”
“He is very, very patient,” Judy interjected. “He doesn’t get flustered easily. He taught our kids to drive. He’s a driver’s education teacher on the side. Things that would knock me down for a few days, he takes in stride.”
Craig and Judy met through a mutual friend and were married in 2011. The two have a blended family of five adult children with an expanding group of grandkids.
The couple reflect on their greatest accomplishments in life. Growing up on a small dairy farm, most women in Judy’s hometown married young and didn’t attend college at that time so education was a unique achievement for her.
“Getting my master’s degree was a significant accomplishment for me and I paid for it on my own. I remember when I paid off my last student loan, I thought ‘I made it.’ I hope I’ve made a difference in the lives of people we’ve encountered along the way,” Judy said. “I think and hope they’ll remember their time with me kindly.”
It’s evident that this couple is thought of quite fondly. Judy is often recruited to volunteer and help serve on non-profit boards, like the Safer Foundation where she serves as the President. In 2022, she was a nominee for the YWCA’s Champions of Change award. In March of 2023, Craig was inducted into the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
But none of it has been about awards or recognition. Craig and Judy, quite simply, care. About the lives of their kids, students, and players, knowing that life allows second chances and stories of redemption, and hope for the future.
While teaching and guiding lots of young people throughout their formative years, Craig and Judy have learned a few things from their students along the way.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from these kids is resiliency. I’ve seen so many kids in these unbelievable and challenging circumstances rise to the top. The strength of the human spirit is incredible,” Judy says. “When these kids have a goal, and they can be resilient and surround themselves with the right people, they can do anything and it’s never too late. Some come from tough circumstances and what they can achieve is amazing. I tell all my kids even the toughest day is kind enough to pass. There is good out there. You must look hard some days but it’s there.”
“This makes me think of one kid in particular,” Craig chimes in. “He had a challenging life, but basketball was his avenue to something else. I would never have thought it when he started as a freshman. He is a policeman in Davenport now. I just saw him the other day and he gave me a big hug.”
Those are the days when patience pays off and the results are seen. When former students, now grown, run into Craig and Judy, and are overjoyed to report what they’re doing now and thank them for their guidance.
Craig retired from coaching at the end of the 2020-2021 basketball season but plans to teach at Davenport Central for a few more years. Judy retired in 2022 and though her goal was to spend a year in retirement, she’s already found herself back at work, this time as a clinical social worker at the Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House.