Sgt. Thomas G. Ludford was a compassionate expert at probably the most emotional task confronting a police officer: telling someone a loved one has died.

Ludford also was a crack investigator who was named Minnesota State Patrol Officer of the Year in 1998, when he retired. Since then he has handled internal investigations and other patrol special projects.

"Tom was one of the good guys. He's probably the best person I have known for victims' support in the law enforcement arena," said Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, director of victim advocacy for Minnesotans for Safe Driving. "It didn't make any difference who the case was: a very prominent Minnesotan or a person ... living in a Salvation Army building. Everybody was treated with dignity and sensitivity."

Ludford, 72, of Victoria, died Tuesday of leukemia at Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, his wife said.

"He was meticulous in appearance and work product," recalled Lt. Col. Kevin Daly, who called him a friend and mentor. "You were not lucky if Sgt. Ludford was investigating your case. He would turn over every rock. He was a very thorough, complete investigator."

When he retired after 30 years with the patrol, then-Patrol Chief Anne Bears said at his award ceremony that Ludford epitomized the best qualities of the patrol because of his dedication and superior investigative skills. Ludford told the Star Tribune that day: "The only thing I've ever felt bad about was that I wasn't able to do enough to help the families who lost somebody in a car accident."

Ludford had a close call himself in 1996 while guiding I-35W traffic around construction workers in Richfield, said his wife, Marion Ludford. His patrol car, parked on the shoulder with lights flashing, was rear-ended by an impaired driver. The squad car burst into flames, knocking out Ludford. A passing off-duty deputy stopped and pulled him out before the car exploded. His wife said he escaped with a broken thumb and lingering aches. Her husband was a gentle, soft-spoken man who was tough when necessary, she said. He learned early about working with grieving survivors in his father's funeral home, she added.

Gehrman-Driscoll worked with Ludford in death notification classes her agency held for troopers. He spoke to them about how to handle and recover from the gut-wrenching notifications, she said.

One of those touched by Ludford's kindness is Barb Degnan of Edina. Her 20-year-old son was killed in a crash two days before Christmas in 1992. Ludford, who handled the case, wrote to legislators supporting her five-year effort to authorize a specialty license plate displaying a broken heart to remind other drivers to drive carefully. The plates became available in August.

Every Christmas, Ludford contacted Degnan "to let us know he is thinking of us," she said. "He was just an unusually gifted and compassionate man."

In addition to his wife of 51 years, Ludford is survived by sons Scott of Winona, Minn., and J.D. of Waconia, and four granddaughters.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, 50th St. and Knox Av. S., Minneapolis. Visitation is one hour before the service.