Norma Wheeler has fought against war for more than three decades and has lived in Marion for more than eight

By Gus Bode

After all these years

Norma S. Wheeler has been holding signs of protest Saturdays on the corner of Illinois Avenue and Main Street for months.

She is not the only person there protesting the bombing of Iraq, but at 82 years old, she has protested longer than many of her companions have lived.


Few people Wheeler’s age take such an active role in international diplomacy, or lack thereof. Wheeler does not see her age as any reason to quit working for her beliefs.

“She doesn’t hold her tongue,” said fellow protester Scott Schuette. “I could count on one hand the number of times she has missed a Saturday.”

A “Father” For Peace (subhead)

Wheeler has been an anti-war activist since 1967. She and her husband, Paul, began actively protesting when they joined Another Mother for Peace, an anti-war association started in the late ’60s.

Wheeler met her husband during the summer of 1941.

“It didn’t take me long to realize he was something special,” Wheeler said.

Dec. 6, 1941, marked the beginning of Wheeler and her husband’s need to protest war.


A week after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Wheeler’s husband enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He trained at the Great Lakes Training Center, north of Chicago. It was there, in January 1942, that Paul proposed.

“It was a cold, sunny day outside the visitor’s center,” Wheeler said, “and I said ‘yes.'”

He was stationed in the British Islands of New Hebrides as well as several other stations, such as Sai Pan and Hawaii.

Wheeler wrote her husband every day for four years, and saved every letter he wrote to her.

“I have put them in such a safe place that I can’t find them,” Wheeler said.

They were married Dec. 6, 1945, soon after he returned to the United States.

“I used to joke that I grabbed him right off the ship,” Wheeler said, “and we lived happily ever after until he died in 1991.

“I wish I’d had more time with him.”

Wheeler lived with her husband, Paul, in their Marion house, which he cut in half with a handsaw so that it could be moved to the foundation he built. Wheeler still lives in this house, next to her favorite sassafras tree.

Building of a Woman (subhead)

Wheeler has lived in Marion since her birth on West Main Street in 1920.

Almost all of Wheeler’s life has been centered in Marion.

She moved with her family to her mother’s hometown of Chicago when she was young, and attended fourth grade at the Yale Elementary School on Yale Avenue.

Her memories are of her teacher, a man of 80 years who stood seven feet tall and commanded his students’ every action on his count.

One:stand up. Two:turn to the side. Three:push chair in. Four:walk toward the door.

On the last day of school, Wheeler recalled, her teacher threw a party for the students, a surprising reprieve.

“He was very good at what he did,” Wheeler said.

This was one of the first indicators of Wheeler’s future profession.

The influence that pushed her into teaching was when Wheeler skipped sixth grade because it was not offered that year at the rural school she attended. Her teacher in seventh grade was what made her want to come to Southern Illinois Normal University and become a teacher.

Her plan was abbreviated. Wheeler graduated from high school when she was 16 years old as a result of the sixth grade skip. She began attending SINU after graduation, but her father pulled her out after only a few weeks, telling her she was too young.

She would not let this get in the way of her plan to become a teacher. She took a job almost immediately teaching fourth, fifth and sixth grade at St. Mary’s on Kaskaskia Island. She rode the ferry across the Mississippi River to Missouri, then crossed the bridge to the island.

She returned to SINU for what would have been her junior year.

She was an English major and wrote for the Weekly Egyptian in the single newsroom in Old Main, directly across from Shryock Auditorium.

“It was a wonderful place,” Wheeler said.

She wrote a column called Wit’s End, a name that Wheeler thinks was plagiarism of a column she saw in another newspaper or magazine.

Wheeler was excited to graduate the following year, however, her time at SINU was again cut short.

She had to stay home and help her parents, who were aging and slowing down.

“My mother once said I was the worst hired hand she had ever had,” Wheeler said.

The work is never finished (subhead)

Fellow protesters would disagree.

During the years Wheeler has protested war, she said conditions for protest and circumstances of war have not changed much.

From Vietnam to Korea to the Gulf War and now the war on terrorism, Wheeler has seen many of the same things.

“There are still people that think we are crazy and anti-patriotic,” Wheeler said.

One time, after Wheeler and her husband were protesting in Marion, another protester said they might be shot during demonstrations. This did not deter Wheeler, but it did fill her with some caution.

“I don’t care what people think about me, but I am not willing to risk my life,” she said.

According to, Schuette, Wheeler is a “responsible, stand-up” person.

“She’s determined to advocate the message of peace,” Schuette said.

Wheeler said the war is deadlier now, but her motivation comes from a firm belief that peace is a better answer.

“Insane things are happening right now,” Wheeler said. “A visitor from another planet would be incredulous to see what those in the White House are doing.

“The end of civilization as we know it is a very real possibility; as long as we need to protest, we won’t quit.”