By Jo Mathis
Washtenaw County Trial Court Judge Nancy Francis had long been toying with the idea of going back to her maiden name.
After all, she’d been divorced for quite a while from her ex, who had passed away. And she was proud of her maiden name of Wheeler, which is well known in Ann Arbor, especially among those who remember her late father, Albert, the city’s first and only black mayor.
But she was worried about how her grown son, Joe, would react.
About eight years ago, she finally decided to talk to him about it.
His reaction was swift and firm.
“Go ahead!” he said.
She’d been worried for nothing.
Wheeler doesn’t want to waste any more time. And so, with little fanfare, she announced on April 24 that effective May 1 she was officially retired after being on medical leave for months. She had been expected to retire at the end of the year—after she turns 70 in October and is aged out by law.
Last year, she said, was brutal.
“I suddenly came down with an amazing number of medical issues that just popped up out of nowhere, and I’ve been off the bench for several months,” she said, sitting in her courthouse office, which has been cleared of all but county-owned equipment. “I finally just decided it was wasting everybody’s time.”
In fact, when she was released from the hospital, she couldn’t remember what she had done for a living, or even where she lived. Her sister, Alma Wheeler Smith, moved into her west side Ann Arbor house with her for a while to care for her.
“I gradually started coming back,” Wheeler said. “But it was very frightening for about seven weeks.”
Nancy Wheeler is the youngest of three daughters of Albert and Emma Wheeler, who were both social activists. Her oldest sister, Mary McDade, is an appellate judge in Illinois.
Wheeler originally wanted to be a veterinarian, but she got caught up in the civil rights movement in the 60’s, and knew she wanted to “get involved and do something.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in zoology, and serving in the Peace Corps in Peru, she came home to help her sister with her children and eventually enrolled in the University of Michigan Law School.
Next came 16 years working at the Model Cities Legal Center, work she loved and that would help her understand the situations of people from all walks of life. She successfully defended the first battered woman in the county on trial for killing her husband, which to this day remains one of her most memorable cases.
Her favorite days on the bench were those first years, beginning in 1990, as a juvenile court judge.
“I loved it,” she said, “because it was a challenge to all of us to help them improve their lives. Often it didn’t work. But sometimes it did.”
Then, statewide, probate and circuit courts were combined, and she became a divorce/custody judge.
Asked if she’s a social worker at heart, Wheeler thought a moment and slowly nodded.
“I think as I look back on it, I did a lot of mediation in the courtroom, though I didn’t really call it that,” she said.
Judge Joe Burke says Wheeler is one of the kindest people he’s ever met. When he was a young attorney, she treated him with nothing but respect, he said.
“She never took the practice of law personally,” said Burke.
That attitude served her well during those times she received criticism for being too soft on criminals. But she didn’t read those letters to the editor, and after she developed glaucoma, she literally couldn’t.
In any case, it wasn’t her style to ruminate.
“I’d just say, ‘It’s done,’” she said.
Judicial coordinator Lynn Kneer has worked for Wheeler for 34 years.
“There is not a finer person I could have worked with,” said. “She’s fair, honest, down-to-earth and … She taught me what public service is all about.”
Asked what she misses about working, Wheeler says it’s the constant traffic of people, the questions people used to ask her, the problems she used to solve, someone saying, “Here, make a decision.”
Does leaving the bench make her sad?
“In many ways, yes, but I’m happy to move on to something else,” said Wheeler, who is considering getting involved with the Innocence Project. “I’m trying to think of ways to practice law again. There are so many things I can do, I haven’t decided. I don’t want to be as busy as I was. I want to have time for my grandchildren.”
Her grandchildren are 10, 6, and 2, and live in Adrian. When she can’t be with them, she dotes on her cats, Victoria and Onno. Wheeler, who hopes to get a Seeing Eye dog soon, can read with a magnifier, but doesn’t find it comfortable. So she listens to the radio rather than TV, and listens to books on tape or disc. She’s also written a couple of chapters about the lives of her parents, which she hopes her sisters will help her finish.
Wheeler sums up her career so far as “very gratifying.”
“I felt like I helped people,” she said. “I learned a lot from people and from my experiences, and of course, from my family. I hope I can find something as profitable and helpful to do now.”