Ludwig Sees Purpose, Perspective on Horizon as Retirement Nears
The boxes are everywhere now in Dr. George Ludwig's office; on the floor, by the door, under the desk. Remnants of a 30-year career, he tells people who stop in to say goodbye. But buried deep within that trove of spreadsheets and purchase orders and manila folders are things like cause and purpose, too; the true motives of a journey that started long ago in Silver Spring, Maryland, and led – via pit stops in Colorado, Wisconsin, and a slew of other labs in cities across the country – to Fort Detrick, to the United States Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.
It's a journey that will end in just a few days' time.
"Science is like detective work," says Ludwig, who will step away from his role as the USAMRMC Principal Assistant for Research and Technology on May 31. "You build a case, you gather your facts, and then you make a statement."
If that's true, then Ludwig will leave his post as perhaps the most respected detective on the force; one who's been walking the beat since 1989 and who carries with him the accumulated perspective to prove it. Despite a role that makes him responsible for the direction of the USAMRMC's numerous efforts and general oversight of the collective research conducted at the command's worldwide system of laboratories, he's always preferred a more simplistic approach to the job, the people and his coworkers.
"Honestly, I'd say 95 percent of what I do is solving problems by bringing people together," says Ludwig. "I tell younger folks all the time that half of your life story is who you meet and how you develop relationships to get where you need to go."
"He's got a very fatherly approach to things," says Deputy Principal Assistant for Research and Technology Dr. Mark Dertzbaugh, a longtime friend and coworker of Ludwig's, and the man who will, for the interim at least, assume his responsibilities. "You can see he's got this very gentle, mentoring style. His motto has always been 'Family First.'"
That's an easy line to walk when so much of your family – and family history – is so close. After growing up in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland (as a self-described "science kid" who originally wanted to become a wildlife biologist), Ludwig attended the University of Maryland at College Park; the same place his sisters, his wife, and later his own children attended. From there, he would start out as a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases before becoming a civilian scientist who, among other achievements, was a member of the first team to isolate West Nile virus in North America from infected birds at the Bronx Zoo, in New York. Ludwig later helped develop monoclonal antibodies for a diagnostic test for West Nile Virus, an achievement which he refers to as one of the key moments of his professional development.
Says Ludwig, "The work I did in finding out and focusing on outbreak investigations was a real highlight of my career. It taught me how to bring multiple threads together to solve a problem, which is a key leadership skill."
And like all good leaders, he was sure to keep that network of "threads" – of top-notch problem solvers and other solution-oriented minds – intact for any help later down the road.
"George has a lot of contacts and connections," says Fort Detrick and USAMRMC Commanding General Barbara R. Holcomb. "So if I wanted to know something I could always ask him, 'who should we contact about this?' He had a huge network that was a real value-add to us."
In Ludwig's opinion, his efforts to bolster the profile of the USAMRMC network of labs are perhaps his most valuable contribution in a career full of them.
"One of the most important aspects of my leadership term here has been helping the Army understand how important the medical apparatus is," he says. "Because when you have a military that fights wars, there's going to be – there has to be – a medical input into that effort."
"George has always been a strong advocate for medical science and technology," says Dertzbaugh. "He's always taken a hands-on approach to all those issues, and he's further improved communications and relationships with key external stakeholders.
Says Dertzbaugh, "He's the kind of guy who would never, ever ask anyone to work on something he wouldn't do himself."
With praise like that, it must be hard, one imagines, to step away; especially when you know all the ways, means, and processes required to succeed. And so the question almost asks itself: What does a tireless worker do … when there's no more work to be done?
"Don't worry about me," says Ludwig with a laugh, "I will keep busy."
His retirement, he says, will be full and clean. He will stay in Frederick with his wife and will not be taking any consulting roles or contracting positions. How ironic that in a part of the state where he previously did so much hiking and driving and – also – leading of local Scout troops that Ludwig now has his sights set on a more indoor-themed passion: woodworking.
"He's quite handy," says Dertzbaugh. "His last project was renovating his bathroom, which included making the vanity for the sink."
No doubt home remodeling will require more time than Ludwig has previously had up until now – and likely more boxes, too. Boxes of tools, of nails, of tape measures and saw blades. Infinitely more boxes than he's got stacked on his office floor … behind the door … under the desk.
Perhaps the only item that won't fit neatly in a banker's box strapped to a dolly is George Ludwig's genuine affection for his time at Fort Detrick, at USAMRMC, and the team he got to work with on a daily basis. That, he says, is the true value of a 30-year career.
"Who I will miss here most is the people," says Ludwig, looking around at a nearly-bare office one more time. "I want to thank everybody I've ever known and worked with here. Everyone – and I mean everyone – has always had the best interest of the Warfighter at heart."