Ohio Teenager Follows a Different Path in Exploring the World

by J.R. Plate

We frequently hear about people who are a product of their environment. Most often, these stories are highlighted when it pertains to a destructive or dysfunctional situation. However, the following story is an illustration of the contrary. Not only is this story one that demonstrates what happens when an encouraging, creative and supportive environment is present, but also what is possible when people are offered the opportunity to be engaged in life on their terms.

Two years ago my path crossed with that of a teenager unlike any I had ever met before. Attending an open house event at the new showroom for Tesla Motors in Chicago, I went to check out their premiere vehicle, the Roadster. While at the open house, an overly energetic 16-year-old caught my eye. His verve and enthusiasm were hard to ignore. Sitting in the driver’s seat of the Roadster, his ear-to-ear grin easily rivaled that of every man going through a mid-life crisis present that day. After observing the excitement for about five to 10 minutes, I had to know what was going on. I introduced myself and inquired what all the excitement was about. At that moment, I was fortunate enough to meet Dietrich Ludwig.

Today, Dietrich is an 18-year-old from Ohio who had a dream more than six years ago to build his own electric vehicle (EV). At the age of 14, he got serious and set a goal. At 15, after many hours of research, he began work on his EV. About 10 months later, “Deke,” as his friends call him, had accomplished his goal of converting a gasoline-powered truck into an electric vehicle.

The automobile is a 2000 Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck. When Deke set out to convert it from a gasoline consuming combustion engine to the 100 percent emission-free electric drive train, he knew it would be an adventure. After removing the four-cylinder engine, radiator, exhaust system and all other components, he was left with the challenge of configuring and installing the electric drive-train: a DC electric motor, control system, battery charger and series of batteries. After about a year of customization and hard work, the project came together.

Photo by Elaine Menko

The truck is capable of reaching speeds more than 70 mph and has a range of about 40 miles. Although the 40-mile-per-charge doesn’t quite match that of the Nissan Leaf at 100 miles and pales in comparison to the 200 to 250 miles of the Tesla automobiles, it’s impressive nonetheless. However, what may be more impressive is that Deke’s EV project is merely one in a series he has taken on over the past couple of years.

Not long after he finished the EV project, Deke told me about a social experiment he was taking part in. The idea was for him and a few other teenagers to live for four and a half days as if they were homeless. The objective was for the participants to get a true understanding of the challenges that are associated with being homeless as well as hear first-hand accounts from people who are dealing with this all too common situation. Although I don’t have a specific recollection of Deke expressing some sort of personal epiphany after this project, I certainly began to notice a much wiser, reflective and humanitarian side begin to emerge.

Shortly after Deke’s homeless experience, he began to create short films. Emotions and passion revealed themselves through these films that were choreographed to thought-provoking music and imagery. As quickly as two or three films emerged on Deke’s YouTube page, they also stopped. I dismissed the abrupt stoppage of these insightful creations as simply the end of a phase. Sure, Deke was still keeping himself on my radar with teasers such as a sudden photo of him on Facebook posing with President Obama. Along the way a mention of a trip to India to do some volunteer work also surfaced. What I didn’t know was Deke was in the process of taking his film skill set to the next level.

Recently, I was privileged enough to get a pre-screening of Deke’s first true cinematic creation titled “Seeing.” The premise is that the world is full amazing things that most of us know and understand to be around us at all times but take for granted. As expressed by the filmmaker himself, the concept is based off of the “extraordinary ordinary.” To say the least, when I watched the film for the first time I was blown away. The quality of imagery and the story the short film told was like having a bomb of provocation detonated in just that right part of my mind. For someone his age, Deke is truly engaged in life at a level even most adults struggle with. In addition to being blown away by the film I was wondering where all this creativity, insight and drive were coming from. Lucky for me, I witnessed and experienced the epicenter of what drives his creativity. The opportunity to learn more about Deke and his personal life came during a visit to his home in Ohio.

When I arrived at Deke’s home, the scene of a typical house nestled on a nice piece of property that could be anywhere in the Midwest greeted me. His dog Diamond came out on the driveway to welcome me along with Deke and his father, Dean. Upon walking into his home I was met by his two younger brothers, Kevin and Karl, who were in the process of making a batch of maple syrup, which was coming from the maple trees in the family’s backyard, with their father. Soon after that I learned Mr. Ludwig had run his own business as a custom woodworker.

Photo by Elaine Menko

Their rocking chair and dining room table, which Dean designed and built, are unlike any other piece of craftsmanship I have ever seen. Deke’s other siblings, six in all, are also engaged in their own passions such as horseback riding and gymnastics. There is no shortage of activity coming from within the Ludwig home. With so much going on in the family, it seems none of it would be possible without the adhesive component that Judy, Deke’s mother, provides. Raising seven children is no small feat. Like many parents and especially moms, Judy takes on a big portion of seeing to it that all the “pieces and parts” move, as they should. To add to the normal rigors of raising seven children, Dean and Judy Ludwig took on the extra challenge of home schooling their children.

At first glance and without knowing about Deke’s electric truck and his other incredible projects, he looks and acts just like most other teenagers. He likes hanging out with friends, aspires to go to college, and enjoys music and most other activities you’d expect from someone his age. However, what isn’t obvious is the fact that Deke is dyslexic. Due to his dyslexia, Deke has had a difficult time throughout his life reading and spelling. “I process and store most of my information as images. I quite literally ‘think different’ and I have come to love that.” Dyslexia has never been something that has held Deke back or made him feel goals are unattainable. Part of this self-confidence comes from his parents’ ability to allow him to thrive and use his unique strengths to their full potential.

Most would assume that having to deal with dyslexia would hinder one’s ability to thrive scholastically. On the contrary, the environment created by his parents as well as Deke’s personal drive allowed him to use his time creatively and without boundaries. Not being confined by traditional education should make us wonder what is possible when people are offered an ideal environment for personal development. Being able to use his time to not only tackle school but to also be involved in these out of the box projects has worked perfectly for Deke and his interests. Lately, Deke has been thinking about what he truly wants to do with his life’s work.

Photo by Elaine Menko

He is in the process of applying for college so he can pursue film full-time. Over the past couple years, film has been something he’s been exploring and has become a medium where his creativity shines. Being able to create a film or documentary that makes people think critically, feel a certain emotion or even take action is a powerful tool for him. Being able to approach topics and issues that affect society in both negative and positive ways is a big motivator as well. Even though his cinematic direction isn’t as well defined as his electric truck project was relative to the notion of “sustainability,” he certainly incorporates elements that tap into this subject matter.

Generally, we tend to associate sustainability with the natural world. Deke’s story and film projects show that sustainability proliferates on a human level as well. When people are encouraged and allowed to flourish in a way that is in sync with their needs, the natural tendency seems to be actions that have longevity and are positive. Deke’s ability to use his mind and creativity will allow him to go places and influence people in ways we have yet to discover. His potential for greatness is barely tapped and all who know Deke eagerly anticipate his future. Stories like this deserve telling as a reminder of not only what is possible when people are given an opportunity, but also that more opportunities exist when we are willing to think outside of the confines the mainstream world tends to keep us in. Deke has truly seen beyond the blindfold.

In true Ludwig family fashion, I also found out during my visit that Deke’s EV project had influenced his parents to be the first Nissan Leaf owners in the state of Ohio. Also, you can view Deke’s short film, “Seeing,” on the Blindfold Magazine website.