Mary Annette Van Sant Wheeler, age 93, passed away peacefully on December 20, 2020 at the Arbors of Gulf Breeze.
Born in Augusta, Georgia on June 28, 1927, Mary was the daughter of Sarah Theresa Casey Van Sant and Clarence Rowley Van Sant. During the Great Depression, she and her three siblings grew up in a multi-generational household at 1259 Ellis Street in Augusta, the home of their beloved maternal grandmother, May Armstrong Casey Morrison. Mary attended Sacred Heart School and Mt. St. Joseph Catholic Girls School, where she was class valedictorian in 1944. In the fall of 1944, she enrolled at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri. She later transferred to the School of Nursing at St. Louis University and graduated with a BS in nursing in 1948.
Mary married her hometown sweetheart, Thomas Ellis Wheeler, in 1950 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Augusta. Later that year, she took on the role of military officer’s wife when Tom joined the Navy Medical Service Corps. In the early 1960s, while she and Tom were living with their five children in Bethesda, Maryland, Mary started graduate school at Catholic University in Washington, DC. She completed the final edit of her thesis at the kitchen table as Tom, sitting across from her, slowly typed it out page by page with two fingers. Mary graduated from CU with an MS in Nursing in the spring of 1966, shortly before the family moved to Tom’s new duty station at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
From 1966 to 1972, Mary taught nursing at Pensacola Junior College. In 1967, she and Tom built a home on the Santa Rosa Sound in the suburb of Gulf Breeze. Mary loved living on the water, especially taking the boat to Santa Rosa Island, organizing fish fries with neighbors, and watching storms move in from the Gulf of Mexico. One time, and one time only, her son Tom Jr. talked her into water skiing. In her bright pink one-piece bathing suit, she popped out of the water on two skis. Unable to stand up, she remained in a sitting position with a big smile on her face as she held on for dear life to the ski line all the way to the Pensacola Beach Bridge and back.
Mary was an avid sports fan and enjoyed attending her children’s games. She also followed college and national sports closely, particularly in tennis and football. She attended the French Open in Paris during a trip to Europe in 1983. In January of 2014, at the age of 87, her son and daughter-in-law took her to California to visit her cousin Merritt Van Sant. The next evening, they attended the NCAA Football Championship game in Los Angeles, when Florida State beat Auburn.
Over the years, Mary enjoyed traveling in the US as well as Europe, the Holy Land, and Central America. She was a long-time member of a Bible study group at St. Ann’s Parish in Gulf Breeze. In the 1970s, she joined a tennis league in Gulf Breeze, and she continued to play weekly until health issues forced her to quit at the age of 91. Her Bible study and tennis friends were a great blessing and continued to visit and stay in touch throughout the last years of her life.
Mary was preceded in death by her husband Thomas, her son Benjamin, and her siblings Barbara, Bill, and Pat. She is survived by her children Tom Jr. (Patti), Molly Oliver (Whit), John (Fran), and Tulie Taylor (Scott), eleven grandchildren, twelve great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews.
The family would like to thank her friends and the staff at the Arbors of Gulf Breeze. They would also like to thank Carol McGhee and the staff at Covenant Care on N. 12th Ave. in Pensacola.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Roselawn Funeral Home in Gulf Breeze. Due to the covid pandemic, a small private funeral is planned.