Sue Wheeler, retired Kansas City teacher with ‘innate’ desire to help kids, dies at 90

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Bill Lukitsch
·6 min read
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When Sue Wheeler retired from teaching roughly 25 years ago, she left as one of two Black teachers to break the color barrier at Center Elementary School.

Public schools in and around Kansas City desegregated later than other area schools, violating federal law for years. By 1978, shortly after Wheeler had returned to her hometown after living on the East Coast with family, she returned to a place where the struggle for racial equity in public education was still at the forefront.

“We integrated this faculty,” she told The Star during a 1994 interview. “It was hard at first.”

Sue Wheeler, a longtime educator from Kansas City remembered for her devotion to helping others well into her old age, died April 3 while in hospice care. She was 90.

Born Sue Anderson in Kansas City, Missouri, Wheeler was the middle of three children. She grew up in the city’s Washington-Wheatley neighborhood, living in a home that housed her parents, siblings and grandparents.

Education was stressed at an early age, her daughter said, and the subject was a lifelong pursuit. A first-generation college graduate, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in Jefferson City in 1952 and later a master’s in education from the University of Missouri Kansas City.

In 1950, Wheeler joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Being the only girl in her immediate family, her daughter said the organization gave Wheeler a chance to experience sisterhood. Over roughly 60 years, Wheeler contributed her time by volunteering in various capacities including to its scholarship initiatives, her daughter said.

Obtaining a good education was a hallmark of the upbringing Wheeler and her husband offered their children and grandchildren, her daughter Robin Wheeler Sanders said.

“Everybody has a great work ethic and they’re very serious about excellence,” Wheeler Sanders said. “They’re serious about carrying their legacy.”

Sue Wheeler
Sue Wheeler

During the summer of 1954, Sue Wheeler met Robert Wheeler II, whom she would share more than 50 years with. He was on leave from his studies at Columbia University in New York and approached her while she was teaching summer school classes in the park.The pair began a courtship that endured a distance of 1,200 miles, writing letters back and forth, until they married the following year.

The Wheeler family moved around the country, a touring pair of educators, spending some time in Oakland, California and then the Washington, D.C. area as Robert Wheeler worked for the U.S. Department of Education.They returned home after Robert Wheeler was called to serve as a superintendent for the Kansas City School District, a position he held for five years.

Family remembered Sue Wheeler as the yin to her husband’s yang. When Robert Wheeler would get boisterous and outgoing, she would command attention through a more quiet style of leadership. She was a true “partner” in marriage, said Wheeler Sanders, up until Robert Wheeler died of cancer in 2008.

Among her friends, Wheeler was known for her world-class culinary skills. She enjoyed playing host, often whipping up new and tasty recipes that she collected by high volume over the years. Her house became something of an unofficial restaurant for her grandchildren and extended family, for whom Wheeler would cook anything they desired during a visit to her home.

Helping others was another trait family remembered well. During her retirement, Wheeler would cart friends around the neighborhood with what essentially became a free taxi service to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store or general errands.

Her kindheartedness extended even to those she saw walking down the street, her daughter said.Eventually the family had to intervene.They told her she had to quit allowing strangers to get in her car out of concern for Wheeler’s safety.

Sue Wheeler
Sue Wheeler

Prior to becoming a teacher with the Center School District, Wheeler worked several years with Kansas City Public Schools. When her husband became superintendent in 1977, he chose not to hire her to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Even after he left his post in 1982, Wheeler continued to work for Center Elementary. She also worked briefly in the private school sector following her retirement.

During her time teaching, Wheeler worked primarily with younger childrenranging from kindergarten to first grade. She paid special attention to serving many at-risk children without stable home lives, said Mary Ives, a longtime family friend.

Ives recalled Wheeler always said she wanted to teach the kids “who could not tie their shoes.”

“She was reaching out not only to educate them through reading and everything, but to give them some love, warmth and comfort,” said Ives, who also worked in Kansas City’s public schools as a teacher and as a principal.

“That was her makeup,” Ives said, adding: “There was something that was innate within her own personal environment that warmed her heart by being able to help children who had it difficult.”

Wheeler’s teaching career spanned roughly 40 years. In a style she was known for, she invited her last-ever Center Elementary School over for a meal in her home in 1994.

“It was a lot of fun to have the kids over, and they were excited about coming to her house to have breakfast,” Wheeler Sanders recalled. “Breakfast with Miss Wheeler.”

Wheeler is survived by her children, Robin Wheeler Sanders, Stefanie Moore and Robert R. “Skip” Wheeler III; three grandsons; and three great-grandchildren.

Other remembrances

Mark “Uncle Joon” Sanders Jr., remembered for his barbecue culinary skills, died April 10. He was 97. 
Mark “Uncle Joon” Sanders Jr., remembered for his barbecue culinary skills, died April 10. He was 97.

Mark Sanders

Mark “Uncle Joon” Sanders Jr., remembered by family as a general culinary expert and award-winning barbecue chef, died April 10 in St. Luke’s Hospice House. He was 97.

Born in Nowata, Oklahoma in 1924, later attending schools in Kansas City, Kansas and graduating from Sumner High School. After finishing primary school,Sanders enlisted with the U.S. Army while World War II was on and he was deployed overseas in the Philippines, his family recalled.

Among his proudest accomplishments was winning the American Royal World Series of Barbecue Sauce Contest’s amatuer competition category, his family recalled.

Sanders left the armed services in 1946 and joined Santa Fe Railroad, a career he held for 38 years. Shortly after beginning his job with the railroad, he met Yvonne Bush, the woman who would become his wife of 71 years and mother of their three children.

Sanders is survived by his two sons, Michael Sanders and Geoffrey Sanders; six grandchildren; his great-grand-children.

Erma Baker

Erma Baker, remembered as a devoted mother of three who enjoyed singing in her church choir, died March 28 Kansas City Hospice House. She was 80.

In her professional life, Baker held several positions with the National Beef food processing company in Kansas City. In her free time, family recalled Baker loved to play bingo, sing and visit her loved ones back in her home state of Arkansas.

Baker was a part of Oak Ridge Baptist Church’s congregation. She was part of the church choir and a ministry group there.

Baker is survived by her children, Kenneth Baker Sr., Maylon Davis and Carolyn Brown; her siblings, Clifton Chaffin, Ernest Ray Chaffin, Versie Mae Gibson, Mary Ruth Washington, Jewell Freeman, Madella Brown and Mender Mitchell; nine grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.