My mother was born Ellen Jayne Maris in Durant, Oklahoma on the hottest day in 1936—August 12th. Her mother, Edith Lucinda Records Maris, and her father, Harold Wayne Maris, introduced her to big brother, Harold Wayne Maris, Jr. They were exciting times for the family as Ellen’s father had just landed a job to work on the WPA project to build the Denison Dam, which created Lake Texoma. While working on the geological survey, Harold was offered a job with Gulf Oil Company and moved the family to Texas eleven days after my mom was born. Ellen was not quite a year old when her brother, Wayne, contracted scarlet fever and died on Father’s Day in 1937. It was such a sad time for the family, but they persevered, as did most Depression Era families.
Ellen started her performing career by dancing in her crib. Later on, Ellen would sit by my Grandma in church and learn to sing the hymns even before she could read. The Maris family would live in many a community in West Texas. Pampa, Hereford, Lubbock, Lamesa, Midland, Odessa, Crane, Wickett, and Pecos are all towns I remember the family talking about. It would be hard on Ellen to make friends in one town and then have to move away. But she kept in touch with many of those friends for years to come.
By the time Ellen reached Pecos High School, music was her life. Grandma Maris worked as an RN to provide music lessons for my mom. Ellen sang, played the piano, and even taught herself to play most of the band instruments. She also won the State Regionals in Women’s Doubles Tennis. Ellen enjoyed sewing her own dresses for all the dances she attended. Ellen graduated valedictorian in 1954.
Ellen accepted a full scholarship to attend Texas Western College in El Paso, Texas. She would graduate as the outstanding woman graduate with a Bachelor’s of Music in 1958. Upon graduation, Ellen taught vocal music in El Paso Public Schools and then in 1960 accepted a Rotary Fellow scholarship to study in Vienna, Austria to study lieder, opera, drama, piano, voice, and guitar. Going to Europe to study music was a lifelong dream and a life-changing experience. There, Ellen met my father, Donald Keith Miller, who was fresh out of the Army and also studying music. They got married, and I was born in July of 1962.
Ellen decided to move back to Oklahoma, where her parents had retired, after separating from my father. My Grandma Maris told my mom to pick herself up by her bootstraps and go make a new life for herself, and that’s what she did. We went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Mom joined the Opera Apprentice Program. Soon Ellen decided that she didn’t want to raise me up in the opera scene, so she accepted a music teaching position in 1963 in Okeene, Oklahoma, and then we moved to Kingfisher, Oklahoma in 1964. The move would bring two musicians together to form the piano duo of LaDonna Kramer Gooden Meinders and my mother, which would last the rest of her life. After a couple of years teaching in Kingfisher, Ellen decided she needed to move to Oklahoma City for a better opportunity. She accepted a teaching position at Oklahoma City University while working on a Master’s of Arts in Teaching, which she earned with honors in 1967. OCU was a university where Mom honed her musical and dramatic skills. She played lead roles as Guinevere in Camelot and Magnolia in Show Boat. I remember how well she performed.
One day while singing and playing her guitar at an OCU event, a fellow asked who she was and later called her for a date. Ellen wasn’t sure about this older man at first, but as it turned out, Joseph Clyde Wheeler would not only marry Mom, but I took his name, too. Daddy said he got a two-for-one deal on July 2, 1969.
There was never a dull moment with Mom and Dad. They would break out in song at the cafeteria or put on their boots and hats to go out to the rodeo. Mom became a pastor’s spouse and enjoyed leading music for children and youth, along with singing in the choir and serving in various leadership roles at Crown Heights Christian Church, where Daddy was the lead pastor. She focused on raising me up with church, love, music, and a sense of purpose.
In 1976, my dad retired from Crown Heights Church, but he continued working to help other churches find good pastors, filling in when needed. Ellen was always by his side and supported him during those tenures. That same year, we moved to a new house and settled into the last house she would live in. During that same year, the U.S. Bicentennial, she was selected to play piano on stage with her partner, LaDonna, at the Kennedy Center, representing Oklahoma. In 1977, she would help organize her parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary in April only to lose her father just a couple of months later. In 1980, I went off to college at Oklahoma State University, and Ellen went off to college at the University of Oklahoma. In December of that year, my Grandma Maris died in Ellen’s arms. Mom earned her Doctorate of Musical Arts in Vocal Performance in 1987. She started teaching voice again at OCU. In the years to come she welcomed into the world her first grandchild, Keegan in 1990, followed by London in 1993, and Brenna in 1997. I grieved with Mom when we laid my Daddy, J. Clyde, to rest early in 1998. Mom retired from OCU in 2001 but continued traveling to Singapore for several more years to teach. Ellen continued teaching students at home up until the day before she died.
Ellen was a member and/or leader of countless organizations of which just a few are listed: DAR, PEO, Colonial Dames, Women Descendants of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Co., Zeta Tau Alpha, Sigma Alpha Iota, KETS, COMTA, NATS, CWF, OCOL, Pianist Club, Magna Charta, Mary Kay, LMC, Girls Scouts, and Lady Godiva.
Ellen traveled extensively all over the world, visiting over 75 countries. She was a genealogical expert, an avid gardener, and always eager to learn something new. But above all that she was involved in life’s journey; Ellen loved God and her Church Family.
Ellen died on July 19, 2016 leaving many loving family members behind. George Camp, her companion and friend for the last ten years; cousins Ross Cummings, Robert Maris, and Richard Greer; stepdaughter Lucy Shields and husband Jim; stepson Joe Wheeler and wife Alma; son Don Wheeler and wife Leslie Long; grandchildren Cindy King and husband Bill, Steven Wheeler and wife Ronda, Derek Salyer and wife Michelle, Jennifer Seibel, L. Michelle Salyer, Keegan Long-Wheeler and wife Paige, London Long-Wheeler, and Brenna Long-Wheeler; great-grandchildren Tanner Wheeler, Hayden King, Ryan Seibel, Korey Wheeler and wife Loryn, Katelyn King, Adam Seibel, McKenzie Salyer, Garrett Salyer, Megan Salyer, and Luke Seibel.
There will be a memorial celebration of Ellen’s life on July 30, 2016 at 10:00 am at Crown Heights Christian Church, 4020 N Western Ave., Oklahoma City.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to Sigma Alpha Iota Philanthropies, Mother to Mother Ministry, YWCA, or Harold and Edith Maris Scholarship Fund at Oklahoma City University.