Honoring a Generous Life
Around the world, Bonnie Wheeler has left her mark as a charismatic pioneer in the exploration and expansion of Medieval Studies. Yet she is so much more than that. Academic colleagues, friends old and new, neighbors: they all cherish Bonnie for her uncommon generosity. As she enters her fourth decade of university teaching and scholarly writing, Bonnie's colleagues and former students pay tribute to her spirited openness. Here is a sampling of their recollections:
Asparagus lessons and a life forever changed
I met Bonnie Wheeler when I was nineteen. I enrolled in one of her classes, which sounded interesting and met a general requirement I needed. Little did I know then that this small choice ultimately would change my life.
At the time, I was a terrible student. I habitually skipped classes and did as little work as possible; I had to cram for almost every exam I took. But when I walked into Bonnie's classroom I was both enthralled and inspired. Her eloquence was captivating and passion for her subject infectious. I woke up in the morning excited to go to class, which for me was an unusual state of affairs. She quickly became a person whom I strove not to disappoint.
I even went to see Bonnie during her office hours and came away marveling at this fascinating person. She knew everything, it seemed, and inspired me to seek the same sort of mastery. Imagine my joy when she invited me to the first of a number of dinner parties for students at her home. Wonderful gatherings—these dinners were a cross between a salon and an etiquette class. Looking back, I realize that Bonnie was not only hosting us but also teaching us. She even served challenging food at times. Some students had never seen an artichoke and certainly had no idea how to eat one. They learned at Bonnie's table. Asparagus—eaten with the fingers—was featured on another evening, along with sophisticated conversation and many pieces of silverware.
Bonnie cares tremendously about her students and thinks deeply about what and how to teach them. For me, more important than Bonnie's deliberately planned lessons was her example. As I got to know her better, we had a number of stimulating chats that stayed with me for years. I was a young woman terribly uncomfortable in my own skin, living far from home, full of anxiety about myself and the world around me. I had never had a female role model who was so fluent and confident in her intellect, who exuded such a sense of competence and strength, and who was so unapologetically proud of being a woman. Bonnie is undoubtedly the most important role model I have had in my life.
I left SMU before graduating, tired of poverty and my mediocrity as a student. For nearly a decade I worked at different jobs and was reasonably successful in the business world, but dissatisfied with my path in life. As I began to seek a more meaningful career, I decided to return to SMU and finish my bachelor's degree. Even though I had not kept in touch with her in the intervening years, Bonnie remained a very important figure in my mind. I enrolled in every class she was teaching, then went to her office to re-introduce myself. She looked up from her desk, a little bit puzzled, and said, "Stephanie, you've changed your hair!" I cannot describe how pleased I was that she remembered me. Although I was no longer a nervous teenager, I felt unsure of myself after my long absence from school. Bonnie took me under her wing.
It was this second stint at SMU that really changed my life. Bonnie re-awakened the love I had for the study of the Middle Ages, and I embarked upon a new journey that led me to earn a Ph.D. and become a college professor. I would never have conceived of following Bonnie's path without her inspiration. She believed in me, often more than I believed in myself. She helped me redefine what was possible and gave me the confidence to pursue completely new goals.
Bonnie helped to shape the person I have become in ways that she probably cannot imagine. I still strive to live up to her expectations and especially her example. As a teacher—because of Bonnie's importance in my life—I realize that my words have the potential to reverberate for many years, that my encouragement can mean so much to a young student.
My gratitude for having Bonnie in my life is boundless. She has been my teacher and she has become my friend. Her inspiration led me to a new vocation and a new life of fulfillment and happiness; her belief in me has gotten me through moments when my own confidence flagged. I always knew with certainty that if she said something was possible, it was. She always challenged me to fulfill my potential. From Bonnie I learned to be a strong woman, to embrace my intellect and never to hide it, to be confident in my abilities, and to always use a finger bowl after eating asparagus. What more can a woman need?
Stephanie Hayes-Healy, Ph.D.
Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies
Remarkable role model
Bonnie Wheeler wasn't my professor but she has been a wonderful friend and inspiration! Her energy, willingness to tackle difficult problems, strong opinions, ability to help and encourage others (especially younger people) is truly outstanding. The breadth of her knowledge on many subjects is, in the words of today's students, awesome! SMU is fortunate to have such a fine professor—a remarkable role model and friend to so many—inside and outside the classroom. I am proud to know her.
Entrepreneur, author and Tony Award winner
Sparked by her energy
Bonnie Wheeler continues to make a signal contribution to Medieval Studies, both through her own scholarly publications and by her other publishing activities. Sparked by her energy and initiative, the study of medieval literature and history in this country has gained depth and variety.
Giles Constable, Ph.D.
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey
I heard of Bonnie Wheeler long before I met her or, rather, was swept up by her presence one year at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. Her generosity, humor, drive, and commitment—not just to academic life but to life in general—were and are irresistible. Renowned for her largeness of mind, she has always been a tremendous example to the rest of us on how to take our subjects forward and how to take people forward, too.
Felicity Riddy, Ph.D.
Extracting the very best from students
Bonnie has been my mentor and friend through 24 years of life experience, from the angst of freshman writing assignments to my first trip abroad without my parents, from my graduate school oral exams to completion of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. She has a way of looking into the hearts and minds of students and extracting the very best they have to offer—sometimes despite their best efforts to the contrary. Bonnie demands excellence from everyone and is as challenging a teacher in every way as I have ever had the privilege to know. She genuinely loves her students, and we adore her in return. With Bonnie, teaching in the classroom is only the beginning.
Kathryn Arata, MA in English, 1991
Southern Methodist University
An incredibly generous human being
Bonnie Wheeler is a dynamic presence in many areas of Medieval Studies, but especially in her encouragement of junior scholars. It is supremely appropriate to honor her with a just and lasting tribute to an incredibly generous human being.
William Chester Jordan, Ph.D.
Princeton, New Jersey
See this magic at work
Bonnie has the art of gaiety in scholarship, which has inspired her students and friends. Anyone who enters that spell keeps it for life. I have seen this magic at work, heard tales from others, and experienced it. No tribute could be more fitting than that which is now proposed.
Fellow, St. John's College
For more than 30 years I have known Bonnie, attended her presentations, read many of her articles, persuaded her to take on editing projects, and heard her lecture and interact with students. She is a remarkable scholar and generous mentor, distinguished in the breadth of her scholarship and the clarity of her writing. Bonnie is a charismatic professor, deeply committed to her students and younger colleagues. Her curriculum vitae witnesses to her energy as well as to her love of learning and teaching. It is a rare combination.
James P. Carley, Ph.D.
Inspiring her friends and students
Bonnie Wheeler is a model of scholarly generosity. She has the most generous imagination of any scholar I know—always open, curious and excited about new ideas. This in itself is an inspiration. But even more remarkable is her unfailing generosity toward fellow scholars, especially younger ones.
Ann Matter, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Worldwide recognition for innovative scholarship
Bonnie has been indefatigable in encouraging scholarship by younger scholars. Her work with Arthuriana has been nothing short of outstanding, bringing it worldwide recognition for solid and innovative scholarship. Her graciousness and generosity are legendary.
William Kibler, Ph.D.
The University of Texas
Few have had such impact
Few have had such a positive impact upon Medieval Studies as Bonnie Wheeler. Her special mission throughout her career has been the cultivation of young scholars, fostering their intellectual growth through mentoring and their professional possibilities through guiding their research. She is and always has been an inspiration, a catalyst for change, and a fairy godmother for those working on nontraditional projects.
Jeffrey J. Cohen, Ph.D.
George Washington University
New and important perspectives
Bonnie's name is one of a small number that are entirely synonymous with Arthurian studies. As founder and editor of Arthuriana, and as a teacher and scholar, she has made incalculable contributions to the field. Moreover, her other work in publishing has given us new, important perspectives on a variety of medieval subjects. By no means least, she is known as a dedicated and effective mentor to young scholars. As scholar, teacher, mentor, and friend, Bonnie Wheeler is an exemplary representative of our profession.
Norris J. Lacy, Ph.D.
The Pennsylvania State University
State College, Pennsylvania
Tireless benefactor to academia
Bonnie Wheeler was my enthusiastic and hard-working colleague at Columbia University during her junior faculty years. Since then she has achieved national recognition as a tireless sponsor of activities and publications that benefit the entire academic community. In addition, she is regarded as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the work of many women scholars.
Robert W. Hanning, Ph.D.
New York, New York
A pioneer in this expanding scholarly movement
Bonnie Wheeler is a powerful force in influencing the direction that Medieval Studies has taken in the past 25 years. She has singlehandedly transformed—substantively and cosmetically—a rather obscure, narrowly focused publication into one of the major interdisciplinary journals of not only Arthurian matters, but of all things medieval. By organizing a dazzling array of fascinating and provocative conference sessions, Bonnie has always been ahead of the curve in anticipating new turns in the field of Medieval Studies. Bonnie Wheeler is one of the pillars of this field and, as a female medievalist, one of the "foremothers" to whom all young female medievalists admire and remember.
Lorraine K. Stock, Ph.D.
University of Houston
A towering presence
Some medievalists are known as great teachers, some as great scholars—"great" in the numerical sense of one in a thousand. A few achieve both eminences. Of those few, I can count only four who tower over the rest of us as teachers, scholars and gracious colleagues. And of those four, only one has rescued a moribund journal, renamed it and carried it to international prominence. The journal is Arthuriana; the medievalist is Bonnie Wheeler.
D. Thomas Hanks, Ph.D.
One of the most energetic and generous medievalists I know, Bonnie Wheeler has made a crucial contribution to Medieval Studies, not only through her own impressive scholarship and teaching, but also through her great service to the profession. She is largely responsible for the great success of the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages (TEAMS) and, through the New Middle Ages book series, has been instrumental in encouraging scholarship by applying newer theoretical and methodological approaches to Medieval Studies.
Richard K. Emmerson, Ph.D.
Former Executive Director Medieval Academy of America
Dean of Arts, Manhattan College Riverdale,
Bonnie Wheeler's classes create an environment where students get to do something that undergraduates almost never get to do: take intellectual ownership of the material being studied. One of the most empowering things we can do for students is to give them the opportunity to have their voices heard. Bonnie empowers her students by letting them know that they are being listened to, that their opinions and ideas count. Suffice it to say, Bonnie Wheeler is a teacher's teacher in every sense of the term.
† Stephen Stallcup, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina
Why Bonnie Wheeler is my Hero
I don't know if it's possible to ever express my gratitude for the gift of Bonnie Wheeler to our profession with words that would be adequate to how much she has blessed my and others' careers. What I can say is that, for those of us situated in university careers where we are often made to feel as if we must swim or sink on our own, and where a terrible level of anxiety and fear and self-loathing is the result of that professional zeitgeist, Bonnie Wheeler has inspired and orchestrated endless spontaneous acts of the fostering of individual [hopes and] careers, but more importantly, of a collective good will that has been infectious and spread to many dark corners. Tonight, after midnight, with a martini poured by my friend Sheryl Meyering sitting on the table next to my laptop, I raise all of my virtual and real glasses to Bonnie, who shines the most stylish and searching lights upon the often tumultuous and dark seas of our studies. Bonnie: we thank you ever so much; you have our undying devotion. (excerpted from "Why Bonnie Wheeler is my Hero" blog post)
Eileen A. Joy, Ph.D.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville