Thirty-six years ago, Ron Wheeler moved his wife and young children to Johnson Bible College to begin a career of teaching literature and composition at the College. This had not been his plan when he began his education at Kentucky Christian College hoping to become a youth minister, but he realized that he enjoyed teaching older students and that he enjoyed his English courses. So, Ron transferred to Morehead State University his senior year, completed a major in English, and then began a master’s program in the fall of 1976.
Hoping to teach in a Christian college setting, Ron applied to a number of colleges and received a number of rejections. About to decide that God might be leading him in another direction, he was surprised to receive a call from Dr. David Eubanks, president of Johnson Bible College, informing him that the College needed someone with a master of arts degree in English to teach literature and composition courses beginning in the fall of 1977. Ron drove to Knoxville the next day for an interview, and, by May, he had accepted the position. He completed his M.A. in August of 1977, and at the age of 23 began teaching. The rest is history!!
Ron has taught the Introduction to Composition and Introduction to Literature courses, as well as World Literature and American Literature courses. Specialty courses such as Introduction to Shakespeare, 19th Century Russian Writers, and 20th Century British Literature courses have also been a part of his teaching load. A particular favorite has been the 20th Century British Literature course which focuses on the “Inklings”—C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Lewis. This smaller class sometimes meets in the Wheelers’ home—in Ron’s “Hobbit Hole.” Former and current students are well aware of IBC (Introduction, Body, and Conclusion) and the accompanying root beer of the same name. Students may also recall, perhaps with less fondness, Ron’s insistence on writing in E-prime (avoiding be verbs—am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been—and using only action verbs).
Ron has also contributed strongly to the Capstone curriculum by collaborating with program director, Dr. Tommy Smith. In this capacity, he facilitates a section of the course which focuses on ethics and which integrates all parts of the University’s curriculum into the program. Ron coordinates faculty presentations, assists with instruction on the Capstone retreat, assesses group presentations, and team-evaluates project presentations. Professor Wheeler’s longevity at Johnson stems from his continuing belief in its mission. He states, “The College, now the University, has engaged in forward thinking. That forward thinking, both in terms of delivery of education and in terms of outreach of the Gospel—that attitude and vision—began with Ashley S. Johnson. And I believe that the institution has maintained the spirit of his commitment to instruction of Christian leaders and workers. In some ways, our move to a university and the more descriptive purpose statement we now have recaptured the spirit of the School of the Evangelists.”
Ron’s ministry also includes a commitment to service in a local congregation, the Woodlawn Christian Church. Soon after moving to Johnson, this church ordained him to the ministry of Christian education. For 25 years he has taught an adult Sunday school class, enjoying discussing the Scripture’s significance with people from various backgrounds. He also served as an elder, as a leader in small-group ministry, and as a bass player in the worship band. He believes that such involvement is typical for the Johnson faculty; he notes, “When students take a class such as history, speech, or English, they’re getting those disciplines from the perspective of people who have served in Christian education, higher education, and in localized ministries to one degree or another. I think that combination of experiences adds a very positive and enriching depth to our curriculum.”
Professor Wheeler has a special message for Johnson alumni and supporters: “I cannot tell you how grateful I am for your faithfulness and your sacrifice to the work that goes on here.” Observing alumni at Johnson’s annual Homecoming program led him to an appreciation for the mandatory attendance policy, both in the classroom and in chapel services. He states, “I hold my students accountable to come to class in part because people outside of this place sacrifice generously to support our students’ academic pursuits for the sake of the Kingdom. I remind my students that they have the privilege—in some cases, the leisure—of sitting in this classroom and taking the time to learn because somebody they may never meet on this side of the grave has sent money to help run the electricity, to keep the water going, to pay for salaries, and for all the unglamorous things that it takes to run an institution. We have had thousands of unsung donors over the years, and I think students need to be aware of and respectful of those sacrifices.” Ron and Martha Wheeler recently celebrated 39 years of marriage, 36 of which have been spent on this campus! Together their contributions to Johnson University have been invaluable. In addition to being a creative homemaker and Marmee to her grandchildren, Martha has served the University as secretary, bookstore manager, and dorm mother. Their daughter Amber Hockman (’99, ’00) and her husband Chris (’99) live in Knoxville with their children Grace, Faith, and Garrett. Son Aaron and his wife Janet (Herrick ’02) and twins Nate and Alex live in Easthampton, New Jersey. Alumnus Jeff Gerkin (’90) and his wife Elizabeth became a part of the Wheeler family many years ago. The Gerkin children Meredith and Alex are also considered grandchildren, with Meredith planning to enroll in Johnson University in August 2014. In fact, Grandolf beams when he says, “That will be delightful to have her in class. I will enjoy that immensely.”
Annually Mark Pierce surveys alumni two and five years since graduation. When asked about a course that has proven most helpful since leaving Johnson one alumnus wrote about Ron, “His passion and knowledge of the subject was encouraging and made me want to learn more . . .” Another wrote, “Anything Ron Wheeler taught because of his ability to encourage serious
thought . . .” Yet another graduate responded, “Ron gave us the tools we need not to just grow in our reading habits, but to grow in our spiritual lives as well.” The responses from these recent graduates suggest that Ron’s decision to pursue a career in teaching literature and composition at the college level was a great one.
About the Author:
Marie Garrett has served as a librarian at Johnson and Milligan and recently retired from the University of Tennessee. From the mid-70s through most of the 80s, she worked in Johnson’s library alongside Helen Lemmon, Pat Gerkin, Sandra Phillips, and many other good people, including Terri Shores, Johnson’s fastest-ever catalog card typist. With Ron’s encouragement, Marie discovered that she enjoys writing and has contributed several biographical essays to reference books. Since all the Wheelers, Hockmans, and Gerkins are very special to her, she has particularly enjoyed writing this article.