Mary E. Wheeler didn’t go to college until after she had raised her two boys, and she was admittedly a bit nervous about going to class with students fresh out of high school.
But Wheeler did well in her studies at Norfolk College of William and Mary, graduating in three-and-a-half years with a 4.0 average. “I was accepted and found it an exhilarating experience to find my mind had not atrophied completely,” Wheeler recalled in an interview years later with The Raleigh Times.
In fact, Wheeler continued with her studies, going on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1966, Wheeler joined the faculty at NC State, where she was an associate professor of Russian history.
And while she may have been late to university life, Wheeler clearly took to academia. On this day in 1973, Wheeler became the first woman to receive one of the Outstanding Teacher Awards given annually at NC State. She was one of two recipients that year.
Wheeler told The Raleigh Times that her students were open-minded and interested in Russian culture. She was excited about using that experience in her upcoming classes on Russian history.
“The Russian people were very friendly and hospitable,” she said. “They almost put Southern hospitality to shame.”
Wheeler encouraged women to follow her lead and get a college education, even if it happened later in life.
“Many are afraid they won’t be able to keep up with the younger students,” she said. “But I have found that their additional maturity makes up for their age. They have more self-discipline and are not worrying about whether or not they have a date for Saturday night.”