Shining light in La Verne
Community cornerstone Myrna Wheeler is celebrated for her lifetime of service.
by Megan Sebestyen
photography by Courtney Droke
“It is a joy to be generous”; wise words from a woman who learned them, and earned them through a life bookmarked by gifts of community service. After becoming a cornerstone to the political and community connections within La Verne—serving as a guiding light for Pacific Southwest Conference Churches of the Brethren and supporting the re-creation of the University of La Verne under President Stephen Morgan—Myrna Wheeler has given more than time and money. She gave her life in pursuit of her passion.
Myrna Wheeler: University of La Verne alumna, University trustee, adviser to the University president, Church of the Brethren minister to older adults, active church constituent and Hillcrest Homes Chaplain. She gave of her life and fueled her service with her joy. During the last six months of her life, Myrna received the blessings and accolades of the community she served when she faced terminal leukemia. “When you are blessed, you want to give,” Wheeler reflected. “One of my first blessings was being at La Verne College.”
A leader in the making
A freshman in 1956, Myrna said that the small size of the campus made her feel at home. “We were very close-knit, just like a big family.” Church was a big part of college life; attending weekly services was mandatory, and even graduation took place inside the La Verne Church of the Brethren. The same minister who married Myrna and her ex-husband Denny was also Myrna’s sociology professor. Nevertheless, Myrna said she was proud to see diversity, campus growth and more opportunities on the La Verne campus today, as they were not available to her.
Myrna participated in the first Summer Service Program in 1957 at the Covington Church of the Brethren in Kent, Wash. During the 12 week program, Myrna believed she laid the groundwork for her future, finding that her passion was working to help others. “That experience probably shaped me more than any other one experience. It made me very aware of the differences in people.” She remembered accompanying the pastor to call on neighbors, to tell them about the church program. “We walked into a hovel that was filthy. The couple both were mentally deficient, and it appeared also so were their five or six children—all running around with few clothes on and with very unsanitary conditions. While I am a big proponent of government not interfering with reproductive rights, I did see the necessity of education and support services for challenged couples,” said Myrna.
After graduation, she began teaching and working in the Covina Unified School District Pregnant Minor Program. Her experiences were vivid. “One time, a student and her 4-month-old son were abandoned by her parents. They literally packed up and left the state while my student was in school, leaving no contact information. I was able to provide a home for mother and son for about five months, until other relatives found a place for her. This story underlines my belief that for many of my nearly 1,000 students, in my 27 years of teaching pregnant teens, that often the pregnancy is the least of the girl’s problems—abandonment, drugs, alcohol, abuse and gang activity often were part of these girls’ lives,” said Myrna.
In another instance, “a 14-year-old student was determined to keep her baby, even when her parents forbid it. They, at ages 32 and 33 did not want to be grandparents. The girl delivered; she was put in a foster home near school. The baby was placed in a foster home in Los Angeles. Every day, this girl pumped her breast milk and froze it, got on a public bus and went to feed her baby in Los Angeles. After a month of this rigorous routine, her parents relented—they realized that she was serious about being a good mom,” said Myrna.
Creating a bond in La Verne
Myrna never lost touch with her alma mater. She began “Gang Dinners” in 1960, a tradition that brought her college friends together for once-monthly potlucks. While living one year in Temple City, she found that she missed her friends; they had been a big part of her life. So the “old group” came together to share memories over meals. “The community of relating to people is so important,” says Myrna. “On campus, you meet people you want to be lifelong friends with.”
She stressed the importance of friendships made in college, “since college is the time when people typically change the most.”
Her long-time friendship with the ULV president went to a new level in 1985 when she was elected to the University Board of Trustees. Steve Morgan reflects fondly about his long-time friend. “I told her recently that when I grew up I’d like to be like her,” muses the president, explaining that Myrna serves as an example for the type of person he wishes everyone would strive to be. “I think Myrna reminds me to be positive and thoughtful and to champion the values important to me.” On the Board of Trustees, Myrna played a key role in shaping the school’s future through gifts of her time, advice and financial backing. “I think I bring a point of view that perhaps the office of the president doesn’t get very often. The kind of thing I am good at is reconnecting back to the original purpose of the University,” expressed Myrna.
Julia Wheeler, Myrna’s daughter and development director in University Advancement, explains that Myrna “took action and made community.” Julia’s two sons Ben Sankey and Brandon Sankey are freshman and senior ULV students. Julie is also a La Verne alumna.
From this generosity, this service, these connections, has come contentment. “I believe each one of us is responsible for our own happiness,” explained Myrna. “If we look back on the history of La Verne from its founding to today, we’ve seen enormous change. Myrna’s legacy to La Verne is to perpetuate our values in a changing world,” says Steve. “She’s been a constant reminder of those values most important to La Verne.”
Myrna’s trustee leadership gift extends from the Campus Center to service on the Finance Committee, Executive Committee and Committee of Student Affairs. “You get back so much more than you give when you are generous,” mused Myrna. “It’s more than just financial generosity; it’s about being generous with your time, with who you are in the world and giving people the benefit of the doubt.” To commemorate her work, Myrna’s name is forever emblazoned on both the Campus Donor Wall and the door of Student Affairs in the new Campus Center Building, locations she herself chose, carrying her work with student affairs close to heart.
The biggest project, recalls Steve, was when Myrna chaired the 1991 Centennial Celebration, an 18-month undertaking to celebrate the 100th anniversary of ULV. “She was a very effective leader,” Morgan recounts. “When Myrna speaks, people listen.” Myrna recalled the time she spent working toward the year-long celebration as, “the most fun time I had. The whole faculty, staff, everyone just rallied around with these great ideas.” She remembered that the school had a special celebration that entire year; each month held a different event.
Additionally, Myrna served as an adviser to the president, guiding him concerning political ramifications of University decisions. Myrna, Steve elucidates, was so well connected within the community that she could predict the effect of University decisions on the community. “Myrna has really been a valuable guiding source. Myrna has always had a very helpful perspective on how to include the Church in the vision of La Verne and still continue to expand. She has been very helpful on how to frame traditions in a modern context.”
Early in Morgan’s presidency, he faced tough decisions during a time when women were not in academic leadership roles. Consequently, he tried to assist women seeking office positions. As Morgan attests, Myrna offered valuable assistance and insight, as she was “firm and very much in favor of moving women into leadership positions. Myrna is a champion of issues of diversity and inclusion. She’s very respectful of people’s beliefs and backgrounds.” These stories and contributions reach deep into a bottomless well. Morgan’s eyes alight with stories yet unshared. “If I could think of anyone who epitomizes what we stand for at La Verne, it would be Myrna.”
An asset to the community
But Myrna’s generosity is not just limited to the school. The day after her 2001 retirement from teaching, Myrna began work as the chaplain at Hillcrest Homes, a La Verne retirement community located just blocks from the University. “I knew that was where I wanted to be. It is a population that has a lot of stories to tell,” attested Myrna.
Since then, while serving as a minister to older adults for the Church of the Brethren and as the Hillcrest chaplain, she gave time and energy to groups like Harps for the Spirit, a Claremont-based program that performs soothing, live harp music for the seriously ill and The Association of American University Women. She served as cabinet member for the National Older Adults for the Church of the Brethren and delivered as a speaker at a Church of the Brethren national Annual Conferences, attended by more than 1,000 people.
“She is probably the most generous woman I’ve ever met—with her energy, her time, her finances,” says Susan Boyer, pastor at the La Verne Church of the Brethren and colleague of Myrna’s for the past seven years. “She’s also got more energy than anybody I’ve ever met. Myrna’s not ever a complainer. She just works hard and feels it a privilege to be involved in people’s lives. It’s taught me a lot.”
When she learned she had leukemia, Myrna retired from her church positions. Her fellow Church members gave a gift they knew she would like best: a $5,000 charitable donation in her name to Heifer Project, International. The gifts she has given all her life have amounted to unparalleled respect and admiration from her colleagues. “She’s remarkable. She is just like no one else,” says Susan. “I consider her a heroine, a friend and a mentor.” Emotional at the compilation of memories, Susan explains that Myrna has been at the heart of the Church, an integral part of the foundation. “She’s a builder. She helps build people’s lives. She’s just amazing.”
“Shawn Kirchner, church organist and long-time friend of Myrna, says, “I have appreciated her warm friendship. It really can’t be overstated how much of a positive impact Myrna makes in whatever groups she finds herself in. She holds so many things together and is a role model in so many ways—of good humor, of a great work ethic, of friendliness, of how to seize the day, of great generosity. What a spirit.”
With her health failing, Myrna continued to hold her tenacity and strength, powered by her beliefs. “She has a deep and profound faith. She is a strong feminist. She is a progressive Christian. She does not seem to be worried about things,” says Susan. “She has that incredible faith.”
Myrna hoped her work at the University showed students that “one person can make a difference. I think people can make a difference in lots of different arenas.”
And Myrna has not, will not, ever truly leave the University and its students. “I believe in life-long learning,” she declared, “I don’t believe you ever stop learning.” For those who hold to that belief and give of themselves, Myrna’s life philosophy will be theirs.
Myrna Wheeler died Jan. 9 in her San Dimas home after fighting acute myeloid leukemia. She was 70.
The Heifer Project
One of Myrna Wheeler’s many philanthropic choices was The Heifer Project International. This program, created under the guidance of the Church of the Brethren, takes a holistic approach to build sustainable communities, end world hunger and poverty, and care for the earth. Areas of global initiative include teaching environmentally sound agricultural techniques, animal management training, and enforcing gender equity and education about HIV/AIDS.
Last year, Heifer Project had 869 active projects in 53 countries and 27 states. The major program, “Pass on the Gift” donates animals and provides training to families in need. The families can then build a sustainable income from the animal and pass on the animal’s offspring to other needy families.