SHEBOYGAN - As a Sheboygan South High School student in the early 1990s, there were a few times Kimberly Kramer wanted to give up and drop out.
But her teacher, Ty Wesley, talked her into staying, she said.
“I remember a couple of times where he would stay so late after school just to help me and make sure I was getting my work done,” she said. “I’m really glad I listened to him.”
Wesley, a teacher at Sheboygan South for nearly 30 years, from 1978 to 2006, passed away in his Sheboygan home on July 22 at age 73.
His impact on students now living across the country is breathtaking, Wesley’s stepdaughter, Shelly Rusch said.
“I think we all have public school education teachers we remember, but I don't have anyone I remember whose death would have resulted in these in the number and nature of (the messages we’ve received),” Rusch said after posting about Wesley’s death on Facebook.
“He was a personal inspiration to just countless kids, and it was the kids who have the least chance, who were the most challenged, that he would dig in and inspire somehow,” Rusch said.
Wesley taught English, coached forensics and directed and managed high school theater productions.
He was the first Black teacher at South, multiple colleagues said, and one of few Black people in Sheboygan County when he moved to the area in the late 1970s.
‘The man had his hands on a lot of things’
Wesley, who was born in Detroit, moved to Sheboygan in 1978 around age 30, intending to stay for only one year to replace a teacher out on sabbatical.
He ended up staying at the school for 27 years, essentially his entire teaching career.
In and out of school, “the man had his hands on a lot of things,” a friend, Martha Shad, said.
At Sheboygan South, Wesley taught English and drama, directing a total of more than 70 stage productions as the theater director, according to his obituary.
When North High was without a theater director, he put on plays at both schools for a time, Shad said. He directed the first joint productions by North and South high schools.
Wesley also coached forensics (the speech and debate team) alongside Steve Thompson for nearly 30 years. The team was "hardly ever less than fifth in the state,” missed first in state three times by only one point, and won the state championship in 1991, Thompson said.
“I would like to know how many millions of miles we’ve had in yellow school buses traveling together,” Thompson said. “And I would like to know how many literally hundreds of thousands of dollars we fundraised.”
Wesley kept students in school and ‘transformed’ their high school experiences
Wesley would get to school at 6 or 7 in the morning and often didn’t leave until 10 at night, Thompson said.
“He just worked that hard,” Thompson said. “He really was passionate about kids, passionate about them reaching their full potential.”
“I can’t tell you how many kids who he told, ‘You are going to college, you are going to do this,” Thompson said. “That’s just the way Ty was. Generous to a fault.”
Wesley would take students out to lunch or dinner, help them do things like shop for professional clothes and find ways to allow students to experience a new place when traveling for forensics tournaments, said Thomas Nicla, a former theater student of Wesley’s who went on to coach forensics with him.
“He’d get everybody into a Broadway show. Once, they saw seven shows in five days,” Nicla said. “He was really about bringing art to people because it was central to his being. And he would take everybody out to a fancy dinner because he’s like, ‘how many kids might never leave Sheboygan County and not have experienced something like that?’”
Wesley was uniquely available to his students, Kramer said.
“You know, a lot of people are reserved and they don’t want to talk to a teacher about needing help or whatever, but everybody went to him. Because it was just easy to do,” she said. “He gave a whole new meaning to an open-door policy.”
Katy Stewart, a student at South High in the early 1980s and now a professor of history, said Wesley was her “first and most important mentor.”
“Ty gave more of his personal time, energy and artistic commitment to his students than any teacher I have ever known,” Stewart said. “He transformed my high school experience into one of artistic joy, open-hearted discovery and collaboration with my peers and with him.”
Wesley confronted widespread racism and ignorance in Sheboygan
Wesley’s enormous impact as a teacher and friend came almost against the odds, Shelly Rusch said.
He encountered pervasive and explicit racism when he came to Sheboygan, she said — so much so that she was at times worried for the safety of Wesley and his wife, Jean Rusch, who was white.
Sheboygan city and county were overwhelmingly white when Wesley moved to Sheboygan in 1978.
Fewer than 10 Black people lived in Sheboygan until 1970, according to census data dating back to 1860.
In 1980, 99.1% of the approximately 100,000 people in Sheboygan County were white, and only about 320 people, or 0.3% of the population, were Black, according to census data.
Into the 1960s and 1970s, Sheboygan may have been, informally, a “sundown town,” a place where Black people were forced to leave the city after sunset, according to testimonials gathered by researcher James Loewen.
Wesley was denied apartments, denied use of his credit card, often pulled over by police and followed around by security guards in stores and sometimes physically avoided by other people, friends and family said.
“The beginning of the year was a nightmare,” Wesley told the Sheboygan Press in 2006, describing these experiences and others, such as racial slurs being prevalent in school. “There was just a different awareness that the city had to be brought to.”
“I think the community, in itself, has been good to me,” Wesley said at the time. “I think the hope lies in the young people. You can change a few adult minds about diversity and racism, but I definitely think that young minds are more malleable and hopefully there’s less hate there.”
Wesley could be both playful and brutally honest, former students like Stewart said.
“As a scholar whose work focuses on Black history, I can see now what I didn’t recognize then as a naïve adolescent, namely his strength and bravery and confidence in his talents, his voice, and what he could bring to every situation by being himself, in spaces that were predominantly — if not completely — white,” she said.
As the student body became more diverse, Wesley helped students of color engage in school and extracurriculars.
For instance, Wesley put on "West Side Story" with a cast of many Hmong and Latinx students, Thompson said. “He really was always looking to get as many kids involved as he could,” Thompson added.
A celebration of Wesley’s life has yet to be scheduled for this fall.
In lieu of flowers, donations will be accepted for a Ty Wesley Scholarship Fund yet to be established, according to his obituary.
The Olson Funeral Home website will have updates on services and the scholarship.
This article originally appeared on Sheboygan Press: Sheboygan South students remember drama, forensics teacher Ty Wesley