Jake Wheeler: a remembrance

on July 1 | in Featured | by

Jake Wheeler

Jake Wheeler: 1928 to 2011

John P. “Jake” Wheeler died in January at the age of eighty-two. He retired from Hollins in 1997, after a distinguished career that spanned four decades. He taught in the political science department for most of those years but took time out to serve as dean of the faculty and dean of the college. He helped found the Hollins Abroad-London program and the master of arts in liberal studies, or MALS, program. For seventeen years, he was the “fearless leader” of thirty-five trips abroad for alumnae and friends. In 1991 he received the Sears-Roebuck Foundation Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership Award. A few years before he retired, he was named College Professor, a title no one had held before or has held since. He received the Hollins Medal at commencement in May 1997.

On Saturday, April 2, Jake’s family and friends gathered at Hollins for a memorial service. As the program stated, Jake was specific about this service: “I do not wish a funeral. However, I would not object to a memorial service at Hollins should anyone be moved to have one. One caveat: anyone who wishes to speak must speak on the topic ‘My most humorous memory of Jake Wheeler.’ That applies to offspring as well.”

Below are some of the stories shared that day. For more, view the memorial service video.

I saw a bit of Mr. Cocke in Jake Wheeler, who brought the abroad program to Hollins, and embodied Mr. Cocke’s vision of the Hollins community. Mr. Cocke must surely have been smiling on the day we arrived at Professor Wheeler’s political science class on his birthday, bearing party hats and Styrofoam containers filled with ice cream. Professor Wheeler promptly put on a party hat, asked for a container of ice cream for himself, and continued on with his lecture, pausing only to greet, with party hat on, a prospective student whose tour guide had brought her to the classroom’s door.

—President Gray quoted this passage at the service. It is from the 2011 Founder’s Day address, “Guarding the Dreams of the Dreamer,” by Nancy Newton “Newnie” Rogers ’82.

When I was brand new at Hollins, I encountered Jake talking with Wayne Reilly [political science] and Bob Bordeaux [education] about an article in The Roanoke Times dealing with moonshine in Franklin County.

Up to this point I had spent my whole life in such urbane metropolitan centers as Washington, D.C., Santa Barbara, California, and Casper, Wyoming, and so I had, as I mentioned to them, nothing whatsoever to add to the conversation.

A couple of weeks later Jake came to my office with a mason jar filled with a clear liquid. I discovered that this fluid was able to thin paint, cure scabies, and preserve small vertebrates.
“Don’t drink that alone,” Jake cautioned.
“Not to worry,” I replied, “I don’t drink by myself.”
“Well, it’s not that,” he said. “It’s just in case you need someone to take you to the hospital.”
I looked from jar to Jake and Jake to jar, nodding silently.
Jake added as he left, “Welcome to Virginia.”

—Joe W. Leedom, John P. Wheeler Professor of History

It is impossible to summarize Jake Wheeler’s contributions. His many offices and achievements are a matter of record and so perhaps I can be forgiven if I just note several of the roles he played with me.

As my former teacher at Middlebury College: “Gee, I just don’t remember you.”
As my mentor: “When you are in a hole, the best way to get out is to stop digging.”
As my colleague: “Don’t give up; finish the book.”
As my host: “The Fish House Punch is pretty weak.”
As my tour guide [on one of Jake’s trips]: “Did I mention that there are no bathrooms on your floor?”
As my dean: “We have to find some way to reward her effort.”
As my friend: “Wayne, sometimes I think you are the brother I never had.”

I miss him.

—Wayne G. Reilly, professor emeritus of political science

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