Theatre Professor Captures National Award and the Hearts of her Students

March 25, 2011

Theatre Professor Captures National Award and the Hearts of her Students


VALDOSTA -- Theatre and Dance Professor Jacque Wheeler does not only believe in her students, she makes them believe in themselves. At least that is the sentiment playwright Debra Fordham conveyed in a letter nominating Wheeler for the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.

“It took years, but her belief eventually became my own. And two decades later, I am a three-time Emmy-nominated television writer, living a life I never dreamed possible,” said Fordham, a VSU graduate and writer-producer for Lifetime Television series “Army Wives.” “You see, what makes Jacque Wheeler special is that she doesn’t just teach for a semester or a year. And her lessons don’t end at graduation. No, Jacque Wheeler is your teacher for life. And 22 years after that first phone call, she is still changing mine.”

Wheeler and nine other inspirational educators were recognized on Sondheim’s birthday, March 22, for their extraordinary impact on the lives of students by expanding horizons, challenging deeper understanding, and encouraging achievement. The award and accompanying $10,000 recognizes members of the arts community who mirror Sondheim’s selfless dedication to guiding future generations of actors, playwrights, composers and dancers.

“In my experience as an educator, I think it is important to be actively engaged with students and try to help them to achieve things they really never thought they could,” said Wheeler, who serves as head of the Theatre and Dance Area. “I try to expose students to as many elements of the discipline as possible and not put them in some kind of box. There are so many possibilities out there, so many connections to be made. I feel as though it is my responsibility to encourage students to look beyond what is right in front of them.”

The mother of three began her tenure-track career at Valdosta State in 1986, working alongside her husband of 40 years, Dr. Randy Wheeler, who retired in 2006. Wheeler, who also serves as artistic director for Peach State Summer Theatre, specializes in dialects, playwrighting, acting and musical theatre. Most recently, she directed Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” this past fall, but she has directed and acted alongside her students in dozens of plays on the Sawyer Theatre stage.

“Most of all, I love the students. Interacting with them and seeing what they make of their lives is a great pleasure and continually excites me. I am a lifelong learner, and I gain so much knowledge and understanding from my students and the work we do together,” said Wheeler, who received the Georgia Theatre Conference Leighton Ballew Award for Distinguished Service to Theatre in Georgia. “Theatre is amazing in that it involves nearly all other disciplines. You learn so much about other people, cultures, behaviors, and just life in general. I also love the collaboration it requires, constantly working with others to create.”

As head of the Theatre and Dance Area, Wheeler oversees scholarship fundraising and distribution and coordinates many of VSU’s theatrical tours throughout the region. She has authored textbook “Assignments in Musical Theatre Acting and Directing” and musical play for young audiences, “Tall Betsy and the Crackerbarrel Tales.” But beyond her professional contributions and accomplishments, Wheeler dedicates her life to making and sustaining connections. She hosts a home-cooked senior dinner each semester at her home and approaches students and colleagues as old friends, asking about, for instance, kids and recent vacations. She pauses from what she is doing and listens to the response.

“The strangest thing about being an educator is that you often do not know when you have touched someone’s life,” Wheeler said. “It is always a wonder to watch people come into the program as freshmen and then leave into the world as seniors, but it is thrilling when you hear from them years later that something you said or did was meaningful to them. You can’t predict who that will be or what will strike them, but it happens; and when it does, it amazes me. It’s an incredible honor to be a part of students’ lives and have them be a part of mine.”

Hundreds of educators throughout the nation were nominated for the prestigious awards in honor of arguably musical theatre’s most influential composer and lyricist. Sondheim has won an Academy Award, eight more Tony Awards than any other composer, multiple Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for his works. He wrote the music and lyrics for a number of famous musicals, including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), and Into the Woods (1987). In 1981 the visiting professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University founded Young Playwrights Inc. to develop and promote the work of American playwrights aged 18 years and younger.

Read more about the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards at