by Dustin Dolf
photography by Amelia Tabullo
Sunday morning: first she wakes up and prepares herself for a Sunday service at Hillcrest Homes. After performing her duties there, she then rushes to Pomona so she can attend the Sunday services being held at the Pomona Fellowship. Then, she drives to the La Verne Fellowship located on the University of La Verne campus so she can attend a third service. Finally, to continue her hurried but pleasant typical Sunday, she returns to Hillcrest for another service.
Myrna Wheeler may sound like a busy woman, and rightfully so, but it is not because she spreads herself too thin. Being a person who loves meeting and interacting with people, Myrna is the full-time chaplain at Hillcrest Homes for the elderly in La Verne. “I love being with and meeting seniors,” she shares. Although Myrna is Hillcrest chaplain, she is an active member of the Pomona Fellowship Church of the Brethren.
Entering La Verne College as a freshman in 1956, Myrna had experienced the campus the previous year when her family visited her older sister. Yet, at that point she was not particularly interested in attending LVC. “I really thought I wanted to go to a big school. I did apply to several big schools and got accepted,” she confesses. When visiting La Verne, she would stay in her sister’s dorm room, so she was able to see how small the College was compared to her large high school. Myrna explains, “I saw how much fun it was to be on a small campus.” Always knowing that she wanted to become a teacher, seeing LVC was the deciding factor in choosing to pursue that goal.
In the late 1950s, ULV was called La Verne College. Being affiliated with the Church of Brethren, the college primarily offered classes for students who wanted to go into education. That time period did not offer computers, let alone multiple computer labs to students. Myrna enrolled in an audio/visual class where she “learned how to thread 16mm film,” and the technology consisted of reel-to-reel machines. Whole-heartedly, Myrna remembers, “Life was a lot simpler then.”
In a time when the need for instant-gratification was lower, Myrna says, “The girls would have popcorn and play cards.” The dorm rooms had radios and record players, and “the girls would be involved in the Record of the Month Club.”
Though now divorced, Myrna met her ex-husband while at LVC. Dancing, smoking and drinking were all prohibited on campus at the time; therefore the “formals” were held at off-campus sites until Davenport Dining Hall was built during her junior year. At the first major dance held in Davenport, Myrna and her then boyfriend Denny announced their engagement to the small student body and were married in 1959. Myrna lived in the women’s dorm during her first three years at LVC. When married, she and her husband lived on the second floor in a house just behind the La Verne Police Department on Bonita Avenue. Many married couples lived there during their college years.
At the time, LVC held a mandatory chapel every Tuesday. Often, well-known guest speakers were enlisted to speak to the students. These services offered Myrna the chance to introduce speakers and perform in front of a crowd, which is something she would eventually become quite used to throughout her life. Much like today, Myrna was extremely involved, and she performed jobs that resemble work-study to today’s students.
In 1957, Myrna undertook a Summer Service assignment the first year it was offered. She was sent to Kent, Washington to the Covington Church of Brethren. The students who participated were paired up and stayed with families for eight weeks. Being involved with Summer Service was “a very influential thing in my life. It was extremely important to me,” she shares. Myrna has stayed in contact with the people she stayed with during Summer Service 44 years ago. “I still communicate with and see those people,” she says of her hosts who now live in Northern California and are in their late 80s and early 90s. During her Summer Service assignment, she discovered she had abilities she never thought she possessed. She was asked to preach, organize bible schools, lead worships, do camp counseling, conduct survey campaigns, make bulletins and sing solos in the choir.
Myrna explains, “It really reinforced for me that I was a person who had some skill in leadership.” Not only did she discover confidence in herself that she would use throughout her life, she also learned to appreciate the role of pastors. The students were often asked to speak about LVC and share what the college was about, and this was the first time she acted as a representative for the school.
After graduating from La Verne College in 1960, Myrna began her 37-year career of teaching. She taught at the junior high school level for about 10 years before she went into teaching pregnant teens for 37 years in the Covina district. Because these students were from a wide range of ages and grade levels, Myrna gained the ability to teach many different subjects from English to wood shop, if necessary. Her classes with the teens were small, so Myrna always tried to create a family feeling with the girls. To create comfort in the classes, she acted as a counselor and offered advice and guidance. Many of the young mothers would bring their babies to class, and Myrna would often try to incorporate the fathers into the sessions near the end of class.
The family feeling must have worked with the mothers because Myrna is still in contact with some of them, as well as their children they brought to her classes. One mother she had as a student always told Myrna that she wanted to become a teacher herself, and would one day have her job of teaching pregnant teens. Lisa Eaneri graduated from high school in three years, and Myrna talked her into attending the University of La Verne. While taking an education class with Dr. Peggy Redman, Lisa was asked to speak about who her hero in life was. Her hero of choice was Wheeler, much to Redman’s surprise since she and Myrna had been best friends for many years.
As a graduate from the ULV class of 1994, Lisa successfully became a teacher, as she always said she would, in the Covina district. When Myrna discontinued her teaching career, Lisa obtained her goal in getting her job with the teenage girls. Besides being her high school mentor, Myrna was again involved with another important chapter in Lisa’s life. When Lisa married, Myrna conducted the service.
During her years of teaching, Myrna only took three breaks. She took more than half a year off in 1961 when her son Alan was born. Alan, currently a San Diego resident, attended LVC for one year but finished college at another institution. Myrna took a second break when her daughter Julia, a ULV graduate, was born in 1964. The third and final break came in 1970 when she decided to get her master’s in sociology and education at Azusa Pacific University.
More than 40 years after graduating from LVC, Myrna and some of her classmates are still good friends. One couple’s group meets for a potluck dinner once a month, as they have done every month since 1960. They call themselves “the gang.” This tight-knit group consists of Myrna, Dr. Redman, Dr. Harvey and Connie Good, Richard and Linda Hart, Don and Zandera Wilson, Denny Wheeler (Myrna’s ex-husband), Ann Wheeler, and Gary and Anne Carl. As fate would have it, Gary Carl’s father signed Wheeler’s graduation certificate. Many of these couples now have children who attend the dinners, and are all a part of “the gang” themselves as adults. At one time, three members of the group were ULV trustees, and two were faculty at ULV, proving that graduates remain close to the school long after graduation. Myrna also meets regularly with a group of 15 women, calling themselves “LVC ’60s Women.”
“Volunteering is a way of life for me,” explains Myrna. Over the years, she has freely given of her time for service. Presently, she is a Board of Trustee member at ULV. She has served on the ULV alumni board for six years. During the 1991 ULV Centennial Celebration, Myrna was chair of the celebration, which took three years to plan. She was president of the Friends of the La Verne library when the present facility was built and has spent many years in leadership with the YWCA of Greater Pomona Valley. Myrna’s church leadership is extensive: the National Women’s Caucus as chair of the Brethren Service; the National Church of the Brethren Standing Committee; and moderator of the Pacific Southwest District, which services member churches in California and Arizona. Previous to her chaplain position, she was a Board member of Hillcrest Homes. To top it all off, she was named ULV Alumna of the Year in 1993.
Through all her commitments, Myrna has been playing volleyball once a week with people from the community and her church for more than 25 years. Playing cards in the girl’s dorm at LVC has stuck with her because she is in a bridge group that meets once a month. Some group members are LVC graduates while others are also from her Church. “I love to read,” she says, which is why she is currently in two book review clubs.
In 1999, at age 60, the Pomona Fellowship Church of Brethren called Myrna to ministry. Licensing followed, with ordination coming June 2002. “I’m always taking classes to learn,” says Myrna. “I have a quest for knowledge.” Seminary classes were required for her new career. The Claremont School of Theology served as her primary institution. One class came from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, and two classes were completed through the Church of the Brethren Seminary.
Myrna has traveled a considerable amount, visiting almost every state in the nation. She has been to Europe three times. Two years ago, she took her two children, and she also went with Dr. Peggy Redman another time. Her next trip, sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, will take her to Honduras for nine days and is planned for next year. Much like her Summer Service experience, she will be staying with a family that is not affiliated with the Church of Brethren. The purpose of this trip will be to talk to women there about their problems, see how they experience life, learn about their families and their conditions.
The explanation as to why she has remained so incredibly involved with her church, her community, her students, her schools, her friends and everything else is simple. Wheeler proudly pronounces, “I am a type ‘A’ personality who does lots of things!”