Forty years ago, spending his days in a classroom was the last thing Thomas Wild wanted to do.
In fact, he hated high school.
But a trip to Austria and a bunch of high-spirited students convinced Wild to spend the last 30 years of his life doing exactly what he thought he never wanted to do.
He retired two years ago from Riverside University High School, where he spent most of his career and left a lasting impression on those he met. Wild taught psychology and African American literature.
“When I first started at Riverside, I was drawn to him because of how students reacted to him and his class,” said Alvis Moorer Jr., who taught with Wild at the school. “It only took one conversation for me to learn that’s they liked him so much because he genuinely cared. He really wanted the best for each student that came his way.”
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse in 1992, with a degree in German, Wild, now 61, spent two years in Salzburg, Austria, where he worked in a preparatory school. He enjoyed it. So when he came home and didn’t have a job, he started substitute teaching and fell in love with the work.
“It became my passion to be able to see the best in people and lift them up,” he said. “Making connections is the best part of the job.”
Wild didn’t grow up in Milwaukee, so working at Riverside was initially a culture shock for him.
“I was born in Waukegan and raised in Brookfield. I didn’t even learn anything about multicultural history until I got to college and then it was just talking about slavery,” he said. “That first year, I was like a sponge trying to soak up information.”
Wild prioritized connections with students over content.
“Some teachers would say that the number one thing is content, content, content,” he said. “My number one thing is relationships.”
And it shows.
“Wild had and continues to have an asset-based approach when he interacts with people. He always sees the best in you even when you don’t see it in yourself,” said Victor Amaya, a former student of Wild’s and the president of Data You Can Use, a Milwaukee nonprofit that tries to connect Milwaukeeans with data they can use to advance progress.
Amaya recalled his first day in Wild’s class.
“I clearly remember the first day in his psychology class where he took the opportunity to ask me if I was interested in being part of student leadership. I had never considered myself as a leader, and I can’t say that I ever thought about being involved in such an opportunity,” Amaya said.
“That conversation during my first day in his class changed my whole trajectory as a student and now in my career where I am leading an organization as the president and executive director.”
On top of being a teacher, Wild was a club adviser and he sits on the board for Milwaukee’s Finest Scholarship Foundation, which helps graduating high school seniors from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I had no academic confidence when I got to Mr. Wild’s class,” said Milwaukee Ald. Khalif Rainey. “But he believed that I had potential that I didn’t tap into, and he encouraged me to apply for a scholarship, which I fortunately received. Him believing in me changed the entire trajectory of my life.”
Rainey said it’s a shame that Wild has retired.
“I know everyone has to retire at some point, but I wish he was still in the classroom,” Rainey said. “His belief and encouragement produced a different type of student.”
Recently, Wild sat in a packed Colectivo coffee shop in Riverwest and smiled at the memories he’s shared with students.
“I don’t think there was a day I didn’t smile or laugh because of a child,” he said. “Being able to return that and make students smile makes you feel good in a way that you couldn’t get anywhere else.”
"They are my family"
Though Wild never married or had children, he said he feels complete because the students he taught have become his family.
“Some of my students I’ve taken on family vacation so that they can bond with my parents,” he said. “Because they are my family. Some of them are like my own children.”
He said there is nothing in life he would do differently.
“People have searched their entire lives to figure out why they’re put on this earth, and I know why,” Wild said. “It feels good to know I’ve done something important with my life.”
Wild keeps up with most of his students on social media and said he is always extremely proud.
“I just want all my students to remember that your dreams can come true. Just reach for the stars,” he said.