Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker never met Mike Struck. Nor have most of the politicians who are demonizing public employees in order to advance their own careers and agendas.

Some legislators like to portray anyone who has a government job as lazy, incompetent and overcompensated. It's too bad they didn't know Struck, because it's important to remember that for every construction worker you see leaning on a shovel, for every nonchalant clerk at City Hall, there are many guys like Mike Struck, who showed up every day, worked his butt off, made your roads safer and cleaner, and ultimately gave his life doing his job.

And he did it all for $44,000 a year.

Struck, 39, was killed this week when his backhoe flipped over and fell into a creek at Seven Mile Creek Park, between St. Peter and Mankato, not far from his home town of Cleveland. He was part of a frantic attempt by Minnesota Department of Transportation workers to prevent flooding in southern Minnesota ahead of the melting snow.

"He was cleaning debris from a culvert to prevent flooding," said Rebecca Arndt, a regional spokeswoman for MnDOT. Trying to protect his neighbors from harm and damage to their property?

"Yes, that's exactly what he was doing," she said.

According to his friends, Struck was the ultimate public servant.

"He loved his job," said Wade Adams, a friend and co-worker. "I would swear he drank two Red Bulls before he came to work every day, he had so much energy. Whatever you needed to do, change a cutting edge or a flat tire, Mike was always the first one to be there to help. He was a very hard worker, and he was proud of his job."

Struck was first and foremost a family man, who talked about his wife, Amber, and his two children, Kaylee, 6, and Gavin, 4. "He loved his family and talked about them all the time at work," said Adams. "He lived for them."

Yet, Struck was always willing to postpone a vacation day or come in on a weekend if he knew a storm was coming, said his mentor, Bryan Lillie.

"I called him 'Boo-Boo,' like the little bear that tagged along with Yogi," said Lillie. "He was basically taking over everything I used to do, and he could run about 90 percent of the machines around here. There would be a job and I'd say, 'Come on, Boo-Boo, let's get it done.'

"He had a good attitude, very positive and he was very dedicated to serving the public; that was always first on his mind," said Lillie.

When Struck wasn't working, he was volunteering for the Cleveland Fire Department. And when he wasn't volunteering, he was helping his parents on their farm.

He also had another nickname: "Windy."

"The guy never shut up," said Lillie. "If he had been working alone for a few days whoever worked with him next was in for it because he was going to make up for [the silence]."

Struck made work fun, but they all knew danger was never far away.

"Every time he left the building, there was a chance something would happen," said Adams.

"I never thought I'd lose a guy this way," said Lillie. "I always figured someone would get run over because it's just gotten worse with all the inattentive driving. I've had signs knocked out of my hands twice. We've come close."

That's why the current backlash against public workers riles them now.

"I get so fed up with people who think we have cushy jobs," said Lillie. "Mike was disgusted by it because people don't understand what we go through, what we give up. One of my friends said, 'Your job sucks, you're on call 24/7.' That's right."

For $44,000.

Every workplace, public and private, has to pick its employees from the human race, so there are good ones and bad ones everywhere. But the next time you are tempted to lay the blame of the country's debt on a government employee, think of Mike Struck and his nine years of duty to his community.

"We could hire a hundred people to fill his job, but we'll never replace Mike," Adams said.

Note: Mike Struck's colleagues have started a fund to educate his children. Make checks payable to Mike Struck Memorial Fund, c/o Nicollet County Bank, 220 S. 3rd St., St. Peter, MN 56082.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702