Growing up a preacher’s kid, Frank Wheeler had no connections to YC. His dad, Lloyd, was preaching in Springdale, Ark., when a York College singing group called New Folk Trio performed. Later, when living in Wood River, Ill., the East Hill Minstrels from York performed at a nearby youth rally and that prompted Frank to ask his dad if he could visit campus.
Lloyd just happened to be friends with a few people at YC including a college buddy of his, Dale Larsen, YC president. He was also friends with Dr. Mabrey Miller and Coach Colis Campbell, so it didn’t take too much convincing for a road trip. They both fell in love with the college, and that was that.
Even though young Wheeler didn’t know anyone when he arrived as a freshman, he quickly got involved in student activities including going out for the men’s soccer team under Coach Paul Touchton ‘61. Most of the players, including Wheeler, had never played soccer but were used to American football rules. They did well on the season, but Wheeler chuckled as he commented, “the team was pretty rough.”
That spring, Wheeler was part of a group of athletes who represented the YC Panthers in a unique way. “From what I remember,” he began, “early in the spring semester coaches were counting and calculating… ‘Man, I wish we had a track team. If we got third in conference in track, we’d win that All-Sports Trophy.’ So several of us guys put together an ad hoc track team,” Wheeler continued. “And the only track meet we went to was the conference meet. We got third.”
Although his future bride, Kathleen Baker, was a classmate of his from the very beginning, Wheeler didn’t know her until the last week of his freshman year. He had Elmer Baker for English, and out of a Middlebrook window, he saw Kathleen walking down the sidewalk. He asked a buddy in class and found out that she was in fact Elmer’s daughter and lived off campus. He made sure they got acquainted the following semester.
His sophomore year was an active one with him serving as president of Sigma Tau social club, Phi Theta Kappa honor society, and the Lettermen’s Club. He was in the Student Association, co-chair of the Spiritual Life Committee, and co-captain of the soccer team—making the All-Conference team… all while maintaining a GPA worthy of the Dean’s Honor Roll and Who’s Who Among Students in American Junior Colleges. At the spring banquet he was chosen by faculty as Mr. YC runner-up.
And yes, he also happened to find time to date the editor of the school paper. Frank and Kathleen transferred together to Harding University and were married in York a year later in what is now Gurganus Hall on the corner of 10th Street and Kiplinger Avenue.
Fast forward 15 years to 1988. Wheeler has earned his PhD from Baylor University and two master’s degrees from Harding University Graduate School of Religion to accompany his undergraduate degrees. He has preached two years in Glenwood, Minn., and has been directing the Bible Chair at Eastern New Mexico University the last two and a half years. In the spring of that year he received a phone call asking him to consider creating and directing a new baccalaureate Bible program at York College.
Wheeler recalls that during the on-campus interview with YC president Don Gardner and Dr. Dub Hannel ’63, the academic dean, he was told that York College could not survive as a two-year school, and that the first step towards becoming a four-year college would be in the Bible department. Wheeler felt confident he could make that happen and took the position, moving his family back to York in the summer of 1988.
Immediately, he began working on curriculum, a proposed degree plan, and made contact with North Central Association to schedule a focus visit in the spring of 1989. That visit went as hoped, and approval was given by the NCA for York College to offer BA degrees in Biblical Studies. Other disciplines quickly followed suit, and the path was paved for success.
Reflecting on that decision 34 years ago, Wheeler made the comment, “Gradually through the years it has been more and more fulfilling to see our graduates preaching and working in the churches in the Midwest. That was one of the specific goals we had in starting not just the four-year Bible degree but four-year curriculum across the board was to help strengthen churches in the North Central States.”
He mentioned a church leadership workshop in Bismarck, N. Dak., that he attended where three or four of the presenters were former students of his and how he just sat back and soaked it all in. He gave a typical Wheeler pause and said slowly, “It warms your soul to see they’re still participating in ministry and so involved in people’s lives.”
Wheeler hasn’t been one of those tenured professors who rests on his laurels. Far from it. He has always strived to learn more and be engaged in honing his trade. In the summer of 1999, Wheeler took part in an archeological dig in Bethsaida, hometown of the apostles Phillip, Andrew, and Peter and the location of the healing of the blind man of Mark 8:22.
While there, he was bit by a bug—the kind of bug that won’t turn loose and just burrows deeper and deeper under the skin. Before you go Indiana Jones in reading this, it was an archeology bug. For 14 summers he has returned to Israel to join a team of excavators at a dig site in Beth-Shemesh, Israel, a border town between Israel and the Philistines in the area where Samson lived. At the Beth-Shemesh mound, Wheeler helped dig up the city gates, dated around 1400 B.C., discovered a stone plaque bearing the image of a Canaanite goddess, and unearthed a complete donkey skeleton that was part of a ritual Canaanite burial.
“It added a whole new dimension to my studies, my teaching, my perception of Bible background, stories in the Bible and so forth,” Wheeler said. “It’s just been a wonderful experience.” He added that it was also some of the hardest work he has ever done but he hopes to return in the near future once the pandemic subsides.
“In many respects, Dr. Wheeler is the prototypical professor,” commented YC provost, Dr. Shane Mountjoy. “His unflappable demeanor, tranquil voice, and methodical lectures are rooted in years of study and preparation resulting in rich, impactful presentations. As a colleague, he has often displayed the same composed demeanor, gentle voice, and precise approach to questions of policy and situations common to faculty. His wisdom, perspective, and calming spirit are respected and will be missed.”
In 1991, Jerry Morgan and Eric Tremaine walked across the stage to become the first students in 32 years to graduate from York College with bachelor’s degrees.* This spring, the class of 2022 will be celebrated—the 32nd and final class of students receiving baccalaureate degrees from York College.
But that’s a good thing.
Reverting to a junior college back in 1959 was a crucial, lifesaving moment in the history of York College, as were the insightful decisions to become a four-year institution in 1989 with Wheeler taking a lead in the transition. Moving to university status this summer is yet another pivotal step forward to becoming the best version of what Christian higher education can be.
“I hope our department continues to grow and strengthen,” said Wheeler. And when the time is right, he dreams of the day graduate programs in Bible will be offered and thrive at York College.
“I still love what I’m doing. I love working with students and the challenge of helping them see the value of scripture—helping them to see that these stories can give them guidance, find strength and courage for life. It’s amazing to watch some of these students who learn to take that seriously, and it’s really special and still for me a very meaningful experience to be a part of that process.” Then he added, “But it’s time to hand the baton to someone else.”
“It’s been a good ride; it really has,” Wheeler concluded. “Thinking back over a lot of students, it’s just been a tremendous experience being a part of their lives.”