Nancy Lou (Morton) Wiggins loved science and nature, and she felt she had succeeded as a teacher when her students shared her excitement of animals and the environment.
Wiggins taught reading, kindergarten, and fourth and sixth grades at Dillard Street Elementary School, devoting 34 years to educating the children of Winter Garden before retiring in 2004. The popular retired teacher and Winter Garden resident died Tuesday, Feb. 7, at the age of 76.
“She loved having kids get out and experience the world and come up with new ideas of how to do things,” said her daughter, Jamie Wiggins.
In her second year of teaching, Nancy Wiggins walked her classroom to the nearby sewage plant, where students questioned the city’s disposal process, Jamie Wiggins said. Walking field trips around the neighborhood and spending time outdoors were common for students in Mrs. Wiggins’ class. She and her classes maintained a vegetable garden and a rose garden, and she formed a sixth-grade Junior Audubon Society.
“She was big on kids getting outside and learning,” Jamie Wiggins said. “She figured out there were owls in the oak trees at the church, and we went up there to gather the pellets so the kids could dissect them.”
Nancy Wiggins’ goal was to instill a love of reading into each of her students.
“She loved being able to open up the English language to kids so that they could love reading,” her daughter said. “That was huge for her. She didn’t like any of her kids to move on from fourth grade without being able to read. She was determined that they were going to read.”
To further encourage students at Dillard Street to read, Nancy Wiggins started Accelerated Reader, a program that assigned a point value to books. Jamie Wiggins remembers visiting bookstores on the weekends to expand her mother’s classroom library.
The reading program is still at Dillard Street and other schools in the Orange County Public Schools system.
She also helped set up the Annie Stevens Award, named for another Dillard Street teacher and for years given annually to the student who exemplified good citizenship and other positive traits.
Bill and Shirley Boon were close friends, and Bill Boon taught alongside Wiggins at Dillard Street for nearly a decade. He said she mentored him when he arrived at the school and he was impressed with her dedication.
“Nancy was always the favorite of the students,” Bill Boon said. “She was highly liked by all the teachers. … She was big into science. Kids would bring in animals; they were welcomed. She loved animals, especially birds. I’d see weird birds and call her, and I would describe them to her, and she would try to identify them.”
Her passion for her school and education was palpable. She was in charge of the hospitality committee at Dillard and frequently organized school parties. She also was involved in the PTA, Classroom Teacher Association, the Orange County Retired Educators Association, and the Florida and national educators associations.
After retiring, Nancy and her husband, Jim, began traveling. It was on a trip to North Georgia in 2006 that she fell while hiking and fractured her spine, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Never one to be defeated, she made the most of her electric wheelchair and lived an active life for 15 years following the accident.
“When she finally came out of the hospital, she was adamant she was going to have an electric wheelchair,” Jamie Wiggins said. “They got her a wheelchair van so she could go places, and she was determined she was going to go to as many places and possible and it wasn’t going to hold her back. She learned to cook from her wheelchair. We took several trips with the wheelchair.”
Church friends remembered her for her positive spirit, her work on the annual Easter lily cross, and her willingness to help children who needed assistance in reading. She also was popular with the children because of her frequent rides on her wheelchair.
Jon Lee Fulford has known Nancy Wiggins for decades, starting as a child when his mother, Anna Fulford, was a fellow teacher.
“What I remember from Mother’s comments over the years was that Nancy was very much — which I later found out myself — into nature, anything nature related, birds and animals, natural preservation of natural habitats, learning about them and how to protect them. Everything she taught seemed to always come back around to benefit, protect or help us to learn about nature.”
He enjoyed a friendship with Nancy Wiggins as an adult when the two attended the same church.
“Seeing Nancy in church, she was always pleasant and smiling, she was reaching out to children to give them a hug,” Fulford said. “Even through her physical turmoil, her Christian and mental outlook was always sunny. And she always wanted to know how you were. … She was being still very engaged in other people’s lives even though she was restricted in her own.”
NANCY LOU MORTON WIGGINS
Nancy Wiggins was born May 31, 1946, in Lecanto. She grew up in many places but called Homosassa her childhood home.
She attended Young Harris Methodist College in Georgia. She met her husband, James E. Wiggins, at Florida Southern Methodist College in Lakeland, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in education. Nancy and James married in 1968 and moved to his hometown of Winter Garden.
She was an avid birder and enjoyed going on trips around the state but especially loved the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Desoto Park, Dauphin Island and the Lake Apopka North Shore Drive. Most of all, she loved Oakland Nature Preserve and the boardwalk out to the lake.
Nancy Wiggins was an active member of the Winter Garden Lions Club and the First United Methodist Church of Winter Garden, where she served in many roles, most memorable being her time with the United Methodist Women’s biannual rummage sale. She was a member of the Idea Seekers circle and formed many longtime friendships in the women’s group.
The joy of her life came in 2011 when her only grandchild, Leya, was born to Russ and Lana Wiggins. Nancy and Jamie Wiggins went on “an epic road trip” (in a wheelchair-accessible van) up the Eastern Seaboard to see the baby in New Jersey. Leya and her family moved to Florida in 2015, and Grandma wasted no time teaching her granddaughter all kinds of things, including the wonders of nature and how to read.
In addition to her husband of 54 years, and her immediate family, Nancy Wiggins is survived by many nieces and nephews.
She was predeceased by her parents, Albert and Muriel (Wheatley) Morton; and her three brothers, Albert Lynn Morton, Marshall Thomas Morton (Rose) and James Gordon Morton (Joyce).
In lieu of flowers, the family is asking people to make a donation to Orange Audubon or to volunteer at a local elementary school.
A time of celebration and remembrance will be held at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, in the Fellowship Hall of First United Methodist Church of Winter Garden, 125 N. Lakeview Ave. Friends and family are asked to take a covered dish and a story to share.
The Wiggins family thanks the many people who have made such a difference in Nancy’s life, including her close friend Shirley Boon; private nurse Brenda Karney; her nurses through VITAS Hospice; Dr. Thomas Wentzell; and her surgeon, Dr. Michael Broom.