SDSU remembers Nancy Wheeler

Liz Bos

Liz Bos

Nancy Wheeler, 63, longtime teacher and theatre director at SDSU, died of cancer on Jan. 26, but her legacy at SDSU will live on.

Wheeler had been battling cancer since 2006.

Originally from Montrose, S.D., Wheeler went to college at Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., formerly known as General Beadle State College. One of her classmates and friends there was Ray Peterson, assistant professor and director of theatre at SDSU.

“We had similar backgrounds, (and) were both very active in all kinds of activities ? so our paths crossed a lot and I got to know Nancy very well,” Peterson said.

After Wheeler graduated from DSU, she began working at O’Gorman High School in Sioux Falls as a speech and theatre teacher. She also served as a judge at many state competitive theatre functions. Peterson was already working for SDSU at that time and was involved in judging speech and theatre activities. Peterson said it was clear from the beginning that Wheeler’s students were very talented.

“She certainly is credited with having built the foundation for what has become a very, very strong program,” Peterson said.

Jim Johnson, professor emeritus of communication studies and theatre at SDSU, also knew Wheeler in the early days of her career, serving as one of her teachers at DSU.

“It’s tough to lose a dear friend; she started out as a student with me in 1963 and we’ve been friends for 45 years,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to give that up.”

Following 10 years at O’Gorman, Wheeler accepted a graduate assistantship at SDSU. She immediately became Company Manager for Prairie Repertory Theatre, a position Peterson said she originated. After she received her master’s degree, Wheeler was hired as a full-time instructor.

In addition to teaching, Wheeler also directed plays for both SDSU and Prairie Rep. She directed 22 plays for SDSU and 26 plays for Prairie Rep. During her tenure at State, Wheeler was known for her kindness and her willingness to put students first.

“She took a risk on me as a sophomore cast in one of her shows?and gave me an awesome part, and I can never repay her,” senior theatre major Allison Weiland said. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now if it wasn’t for her.”

Wheeler was also known for her ability to ‘mother’ her students, Peterson said.

“You might say she was a counselor on the side because she did really care,” Peterson said. “If a student had a problem they could always go to Nancy.”

In 2006, Wheeler was diagnosed with cancer, Peterson said.

“She fought a hard battle; she was not about to give up,” Peterson said. “She went through every kind of treatment imaginable.”

Johnson said Wheeler was always positive about the future and was always looking ahead. She was especially looking forward to the upcoming summer because Prairie Rep. is planning its 40th anniversary celebration, he said.

“I thought she would see that milestone, but it became too much for her,” Johnson said.

“She fought a good fight right up to the end, there’s no question about it, but one’s body can only take so much, and she knew that,” Peterson said.

Wheeler died in hospice care on Jan. 25. Her funeral took place Feb. 1 at St. Michael’s Parish in Sioux Falls. Johnson estimated about 200 of Wheeler’s former students attended the funeral, as well as many teachers and SDSU staff members.

“She will be missed and treasured, and I don’t think there can ever be another Nancy Wheeler,” Weiland said.

Peterson said Wheeler brought a lot to SDSU because of her passion for teaching and would be remembered for having directed some of SDSU’s great work. He said Wheeler’s legacy would live on through her students and the work they are doing in the classroom and on the stage.

“I’ll always remember her, and she left a legacy that will be remembered,” Johnson said.