|Thom Druffel, center, the general manager of Holiday Inn Vanderbilt and a parishioner at St. Ann Church in Nashville, recently was named the Catholic Professional of the Year by the Catholic Business League. Presenting the award is Greg Mays, left, founder of the Catholic Business League, and Dwayne Keller, the organization’s president. The award was given in recognition of Druffel’s many contributions to the community.
St. Ann parishioner Thom Druffel was honored recently by the Catholic Business League as the Catholic Professional of the Year for exemplifying the organization’s vision of encouraging Catholic professionals to live their faith at work, at home and in the community.
Druffel, the general manager of the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt, was genuinely shocked to get the nod but quickly credited his parents for setting him on the right path. “I had a family that helped me stay close to God,” said Druffel. “My parents were very devout.”
At the same time, Druffel learned early the value and necessity of hard work. “My dad worked three jobs to keep it going,” Druffel recalled. “I had a paper route that started at 4:30 in the morning. My parents weren’t ‘disadvantaged’ in any way, but they worked really hard and they didn’t have any extra money. When I went to college I either paid for it myself or didn’t go. But they always gave me everything emotionally and spiritually.”
‘Not even square one’
Druffel attended Florida State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Hotel Management. That sense of deep family faith, an emotionally supportive underpinning, and a strong work ethic translated into a long, successful career in the hotel industry, with stops in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Irvine, Newport Beach, Bethesda, Charlotte and Atlanta.
At 23, Druffel was already the night manager at the Chicago Marriott. An unfortunate encounter at that location would change his trajectory in a very positive way, by opening his eyes and heart to disadvantaged youth.
Internal hotel security was detaining two 16-year-old prostitutes, when another emergency called the guards away, leaving Druffel with the girls. Having never been exposed to this element growing up in Quincy, Illinois, Druffel naively asked, “Why do you do this?”
One girl related that she had been raped at 13. She had no father, and her mother was a drug addict. “It woke me up,” said Druffel. “I was wondering, ‘If I was in the same position, what would I do to survive?’”
As Druffel moved from city to city in the hotel business, he became more aware of youth living on the edge. Some of them inhabited at-risk neighborhoods that he drove past on the way to work; many were on staff working for him at the hotel.
“You start to hear the stories and you realize they don’t have anything,” Druffel said. “They don’t even have square one. It wasn’t just a financial issue – they didn’t have any parental or family support anyplace.”
Big Brother, Scout leader
It quickly became Druffel’s passion, and mission, to try to help underprivileged youth in any way he could. In Chicago, he was a Scout Master in a particularly rough community, where the options were join Boy Scouts, or join a gang.
In Los Angeles he was a Big Brother for an abused child and other struggling kids. He continued his Big Brother duties in Atlanta, but began to feel he could do more by working directly with inner-city schools.
“Kids would line up for hugs,” Druffel said. “Every time it sort of tugged at my heart, knowing that these kids didn’t have the same opportunities that I did. I wasn’t giving anything financially, but I was giving emotionally and spiritually. It was my effort to give something back.”
Thirteen years ago, Druffel, his wife Margie and their three children – Sean, Meaghan and Andy – settled in Nashville. It was supposed to be a short stay of maybe two years, but the Druffels had found a permanant home.
“We’ve lived all over the country – Atlanta, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, LA – and we got to Nashville and found this tremendous Catholic business community,” said Druffel. “We’re in the South, you don’t expect it. But all of a sudden you see these incredible Catholic networks. It’s why we’ve stayed here; the connections we’ve made are so strong.”
Those connections were enhanced several years ago when Druffel participated in the Diocese of Nashville’s Cursillo Movement. He’d felt a strong pull to explore his faith beyond Sunday Mass, and had been participating in a prayer group with other St. Ann parishioners. A friend suggested he take things to the next level by attending a Cursillo weekend retreat.
That retreat allowed Druffel to delve more deeply into his spirituality, and if anything, enhanced his desire to serve his community.
“We go through the motions sometimes in our faith,” said Druffel. “But this gives us a much stronger understanding of fellow Catholics, of the meaning of faith in their lives. No cell phones, no interactions except with the people you’re going through this with for four days. At the end of the time you have a deeper understanding of what it means to be Catholic – educationally and spiritually.
“I found through Cursillo that the quieter I am, the more I can listen to Him,” continued Druffel. “I just listen to God and He tells me what to do. That helps me live a better life for others.”
Transforming high schools
When he moved to Nashville, Druffel decided to focus his outreach efforts on the local school system. In 2008, Druffel joined forces with educators, the Chamber of Commerce, community business partners, city government and the Pencil Foundation, an initiative to help students succeed academically. The goal of the coalition was to redesign struggling Metro public high schools into an academy format to increase graduation rates, academic achievement, and the prospect that graduating students will find employment.
More than 310 business and professional partners from the community stepped forward to mentor students in these academies, and Druffel became the first chair of the Hospitality Academy Partnership Council. The redesign made Nashville a national model for high schools.
Jobs for youth with disabilities
Druffel’s focus on education and employment of youth in need took a secondary, personal turn. His oldest son Sean has an intellectual disability and is a graduate of Pope John Paul II High School’s Hand in Hand program. Through his desire for Sean to become a meaningful, participating member of his community, Druffel has worked hard to support several area disability organizations.
He has been a Davidson County Special Olympics tennis coach for the past 10 years. He has served on the Mayor’s Advisory Board on Exceptional Needs, and as treasurer of The Arc Davidson County.
“We’ve been able to partner The Arc with local businesses and have succeeded in finding employment for 20 people with disabilities,” said Druffel. “At the Holiday Inn, we have two employees with disabilities and have hosted Metro Schools’ Transition Job Training Program for the past two years. Our staff with disabilities are among our best employees.”
Druffel’s contributions to the community are long and varied and he has been recognized for his efforts with numerous awards, including by the Pencil Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, the American Hotel Association – even the United States Tennis Association.
Druffel thrives on reaching out and trying to make life easier for those with the most challenges.
“Father (Philip) Breen always says, ‘to those who much is given, much is expected,’” said Druffel. “And I read the Bible and took to heart when I read, ‘be a doer, not just a hearer.’ I’ve always felt like I was someone who could ‘do things.’ So I’ve always been passionate about trying to be someone who can impact change for the positive in peoples’ lives.”