(image: Jacob Wagner with Bruce Whisler)

Bruce Whisler and his late wife, Marilyn, knew early on that education was one of the keys to a successful life, so they made the most of what they had been given, and took advantage of every opportunity. The Whislers also took steps to ensure that students in need would be afforded the opportunity to receive a scholarship to help them achieve the life they dreamed of and established the Dr. Marilyn W. Whisler Scholarship & Music Program Endowment.

Recently Whisler met with Jacob Wagner, a senior in the College of Arts and Humanities majoring in music education and the latest recipient of the scholarship. Wagner is a first-generation college student who moved to Florida from Massachusetts in the eighth grade. He is currently interning at Partin Elementary School in Oviedo and is exploring his career options post-graduation. He is a woodwind doubler, and plays the saxophone, flute and clarinet. Classes in the music education program are small and personable, Wagner says; most of his upper-level classes have 10 or fewer students. “The teachers have more room to be themselves when they teach,” Wagner says. “I’ve really enjoyed UCF’s music education program.”

When they met, Whisler told Wagner that his late wife was the brains behind the scholarship. “That was one key thing that he wanted to make clear to me,” Wagner says. “He told me that he was so glad that his wife was able to do this for me.” Scholarships like Whisler’s have helped Wagner afford a newer instrument and help pay for competitions and recitals, incidentals not covered by tuition. He credits Whisler for helping boost his confidence and allowing him to be able to continue his musical education.

“I have been grateful to meet some of the recipients of Marilyn’s scholarship,” Whisler says. “It is always meaningful to me to meet the person who is benefiting from Marilyn’s legacy.”

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When Bruce Whisler was growing up in Chicago, he learned quickly that he was going to have to make his own way financially, as his family didn’t have much money. He had been blessed with analytical skills and was also called a musical prodigy — he had learned how to play the piano when he was 3 years old; his dangling feet didn’t even touch the piano’s pedals. He had seen his older brother playing, and figured he could do that, too. “My mom taught me how to read music before I ever started reading books,” Whisler says.

Recognizing that their son had special talents, his parents scrimped and saved enough to send him to a private high school a mile or so away. Tuition was $400 a year. When Whisler’s father suffered his second stroke and was unable to work, it looked like Whisler was going to have to withdraw from the high school that he had grown to love, and to leave his good friends behind. Whisler had already been industrious since the age of 10; he was delivering newspapers and saved his money. He told his parents that he would pay his own tuition.

Whisler’s high school was adjacent to North Park College (now North Lake University) and offered two fully funded scholarships to its top two graduates. Whisler was one of the two. He also picked up other scholarships along the way to help with other expenses.

While in college, he met his future wife, Marilyn, who was working on a political campaign to elect the underdog as student body president. “Nobody thought he had a chance,” Whisler says, “But he won.” Marilyn Whisler’s entry into politics began even earlier than that student campaign, Whisler says. “She grew up in Northwestern Iowa on a farm. And at family gatherings, they would all sit down to a big family dinner, and then the men would go into the living room and talk, and the women would gather in the kitchen.”

It was a different time, Whisler says. The men would talk religion and politics, and Marilyn just thought it was so much more interesting to listen to that kind of discussion. “Her dad was very active in both church and politics and was well-known in the community,” Whisler says.

Bruce and Marilyn were married a year after began graduate school at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York. He received a fully funded education due to a federal program that was addressing an anticipated shortage of college teachers. “The total tuition for my undergraduate and graduate degrees was $767,” Whisler says. “I had a lot of help; I took advantage of the available resources, but I couldn’t have done it without the support of a lot of people who guided me throughout my education.”

The federal program was so successful at producing college teachers that there was a glut on the market, Whisler recalls. “I looked for a job for two years.” He submitted more than 200 job applications and had over 30 interviews. One of the things he wryly learned from his interviews was to not inquire about the status of the institution’s music library; at the time, Eastman’s was one of, if not the best, university music libraries in the nation.

UCF — then FTU — had been tucked away into one of Whisler’s applications folders. He reached out to the chair of the music department. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or, in this case, music.

The Whislers joined the UCF faculty in 1971. Bruce taught music history and literature; Marilyn was the first woman professor in the department of political science. Bruce retired in 2005 but returned to UCF to serve as the interim director of the Nicholson School of Communication from 2008 to 2009. After his time at Nicholson, he received an Emeritus designation from the university.

Bruce also served as president of the southern chapters of both the College Music Society and the American Musicological Society and held offices in the Central Florida Music Teachers Association and the Florida State Music Teachers Association. Marilyn was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to recruit and retain more female students in science careers, and was active in local and state politics, encouraging several residents to run successfully for public office. She was a powerhouse in politics and in promoting public awareness of diabetes, the disease that took her life in 2006.

Written by Camille Dolan ’98