Profile By: Benjamin Divis
When she came to the United States in 1963, Sheila Runyon was still Sheila McCrae, a farmer’s daughter from southwest Scotland with big dreams and an impressive academic history. She did not know what surprises awaited her across the pond but good fortune and ill eventually brought her to Nebraska, where she would earn her bachelor’s degree in computer science and go on to work as a programmer for Union Pacific until 1999. Since then, Sheila has thrown her weight behind numerous charities, fundraisers, and other programs benefitting women, children, and the developmentally disabled. Her unquenchable thirst for knowledge has taken her all across the planet and even onto primetime television. Sheila is perhaps best known across campus as the wife of UNO Library Dean Emeritus Robert Runyon but her contributions to the university and the city of Omaha are not to be understated.
Sheila Runyon was born on a dairy farm thirteen miles outside of Dumfries, a small town in Southwest Scotland. Her mother, Jessie Montgomery Turner, was a schoolteacher from Edinburgh who came to the country hunting for a job. She found that and more in Kirkcudbrightshire, where she met a farmer named Charles McCrae, whose family had been settling in the area for generations. “You couldn’t throw a stone in three counties without hitting someone who was connected to my family by marriage or some other way” (Interview). Charles and Jessie were married and moved to a farm called Straith in Dumfriesshire. They had four children together: Jean, Sheila, James, and David.
Those who scored highest were placed in senior secondary school, where they could continue their studies until age eighteen. The rest were placed in junior secondary school, concluding their education as early as age fifteen. On paper, this amounted to another four years of learning but in practice more often amounted to just over three, many students all too eager to leave school on or near their fifteenth birthday instead of completing their final academic year. “We didn’t have the term ‘dropout’ because nobody ‘dropped out.’ You went as long as you had to and if you didn’t want to go any further, you left. There was no stigma attached to it” (Interview). Still, there was immense pressure on students near the end of their primary education to score as high on the Qualifying Exam as possible. After all, reaching
Although Jean made it to Dumfries Academy with little trouble, Sheila hit a snag. One year before she could apply, the rules changed, sorting students according to their districts, meaning Sheila would instead be sent to Morton Academy in Thornhill to continue her studies. She was not pleased. “I kicked up a big fuss. ‘I don’t want to go there! I’m staying in Dumfries!’” (Interview). Jessie and Charlie agreed. It did not make much sense for their daughter to spend three years at Morton only to move back to Dumfries, make new friends, and become familiar with the lay of the land when she could just go there directly. Jessie took her case directly to the chairman of the school board and the exchange that followed has become a McCrae family legend. The chairman pulled up Sheila’s control exam results
After Edinburgh, Sheila found work as a lab assistant at Ferranti Engineers. The company gave her the opportunity to return to college to study electrical engineering, but Sheila was not interested. The following year she applied for employment at the Chapelcross Nuclear Power Station in Annan, Scotland’s very first nuclear power plant and one of the oldest in the United Kingdom. It was the beginning of the 1960s by now and the Nuclear Arms Race was in full swing. The entire western world was still on edge from the Russian-made H-bomb in 1953, the launching of Sputnik in 1957, and the continued production and refinement of nuclear weapons on both sides. As one might expect, the application process for Chapelcross was more than a little intrusive. “They told me I needed to take a physical in order to get hired
Sheila’s nomadic nature was shared by her older sister Jean, who by this time had made multiple trips to Africa as a teacher, first to North Rhodesia (now Zambia) and then with the Royal Air Force to Nairobi. There she had met a Canadian man on a research mission who would one day become her husband and with whom she would set up permanent residence in Saskatchewan. Not to be outdone, Sheila decided she was going to travel to the United States. She had family in Detroit: her mother’s brother, a certain Uncle Sam, and yes, this coincidence came with its fair share of humorous interactions. “People would ask where I was going and I’d say, ‘I’m going to live with Uncle Sam,’ and they’d say, ‘I know, but where?’”
After a tedious immigration process, Sheila landed in New York City
Pittsburgh had more in store for Sheila than she could have imagined. As the spring semester came to a close, a new friend from class invited her to the 20-30 Club, a Unitarian singles’ group in downtown Pittsburgh. Sheila, a lifelong Presbyterian, was initially skeptical but ultimately decided to join. Bob Runyon, a librarian for the American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, was also a member and this is where they met. That summer, on August 29th, 1965, the group took a field trip to Fallingwater, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s concoctions on Route 381 between Mill Run and Ohiopyle. Sheila and Bob had their first date here and by the end of it, Sheila knew “This is the one I’m going to marry” (Interview). It took Bob a little longer have the same epiphany but he came
Neil was a bright kid and his parents knew he was bound for college. Unfortunately, as they were living off only one salary, they lacked the money necessary to send him there. Sheila, who had recently joined Mensa, decided it was high time to return to the workforce, preferably as a programmer, so they could ensure a bright future for Neil. However, it had been ten years since she had worked in the field. Computer technology had evolved and she would have to be trained all over again. The answer lay at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. UNO, it should be noted, “was the first Nebraska university to receive computer science accreditation from the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET” (Dept. of Computer Science). That autumn, Sheila was back in school and she was not leaving without a degree.
During the 1980s, the University of Nebraska at Omaha alongside just about every other state college in the nation, experienced budget cuts due to a struggling economy that resulted in the forfeiture of certain programs. One department hit particularly hard was women’s athletics. According to the Gateway, “Track and baseball were eliminated in 1985 after the Legislature cut $366,500 from UNO’s athletic budget” (McAndrews 10). Baseball was salvaged by a donation from the College World Series Committee but track was dead in the water. This prompted the foundation of the UNO Women’s Walk (now the Claussen-Leahy Run/Walk) in 1986 by UNO women’s athletics director Connie Claussen. Sheila was one of eight team captains the very first year, her peers including Lou Ann Weber, Sharon Trussel, Cherri Mackenberg, and Mary Lou Fry (McAndrews 10). Together they managed to raise $12,000 with
For some, retirement is a time of winding down. For Sheila, it has been the opposite. Prior to arriving in the United States, she had vacationed in Italy and Ireland but had done little traveling otherwise. Her nomadic desires came back in full force at the turn of the century and since then, she and Bob have set foot on all seven continents. They embark on new expeditions every year, eager to see as much of the world as possible, for if they stay in Nebraska too long, Sheila starts exhibiting symptoms of cabin fever. “I’m paranoid if the next trip’s not yet planned” (qtd. in Myers 4).
Finally, Sheila has qualified not once but twice to compete on Jeopardy! Her first application was in 2004 when auditions were being held at what is now the Magnolia Hotel in downtown Omaha. Applicants were presented with fifty questions and for every room of ninety people, only the six who scored highest had any chance of becoming contestants. “I made sure I’d written something for every single one of those questions and you could tell without even looking that people around you were drawing blanks” (Interview). After the answers were tallied, Sheila’s name was called and she was put on the Jeopardy! waiting list for one year. Sadly, 2005 rolled by without so much as a phone call.