Two women with strong ties to Freeman were prominently featured as the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame inducted 20 people last weekend.
Neysa Villa and Jane Wipf Wiebe were honored at the organization’s 2015 inductee banquet at the Sioux Falls Convention Center Saturday evening, April 11.
Villa, who today lives in Mackinaw, Ill., was recognized for her volunteer efforts to develop sporting opportunities for youth, not only in Freeman but across the state from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Wiebe, who lives in Homer, was honored for her outstanding running career in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Both were in attendance the night of April 11 and they hosted a reception for family and friends the afternoon of April 12 in the Sheridan wing of the convention center.
Jane Wipf Wiebe
The daughter of Willis and Joyce Wipf, Jane grew up in Freeman, and as the SDHOF award ceremony noted, “is considered South Dakota’s first great female long-distance runner … and still ranks among the best.”
As a youngster who participated in the programs that Neysa Villa helped start, she won two national junior cross-country titles. She won three state mile-run titles in track while at Freeman High School. After graduating from FHS in 1976 she attended Utah State in Logan, Utah, where she ran cross-country and track for two years and went to nationals both years, but she gave up her scholarship when the road racing boom started.
Even as a high school student, Jane was less focused on the competition and more on the experience. In a feature story written by her classmate, Mike Freeman, for the Freeman Courier, Jane — then a junior at FHS — boldly said, “It’s no longer important for me to win.”
“I compete because I run,” she said. “I don’t run because I want to compete. All I want to do in the future is just run for fun … do enough of it to keep in shape and do it when I want to.”
In the late 1970s, with marathons becoming increasingly popular, Jane found something new to enjoy. From 1978 to 1985, she ran more than 30 marathons. That includes three strong performances in 1981 — she won the Enschede (Netherlands) Marathon, in a time of 2:38.21, finished second in the Tokyo Marathon in a time of 2:38.20 and placed 11th in the Boston Marathon, in a time of 2:38.28. Two years later, Jane finished sixth in the Boston Marathon, 2:37.18.
Jane, was joined at the banquet by her father, Willis, and close friend Kathy (Schmidt) Harder, who she called “my oldest and dearest friend, who grew up across the street from me.”
“It’s awesome to be here tonight and be fussed over for something I did more than 30 years ago,” she said in accepting her award Saturday night.
“It’s interesting to think how I got my start running in a place that’s so windy. It’s a crazy place to come from when you’re a runner.” She recalled that when she began running as a youth, she would always start running into the wind — “work first, then play.”
“If you do end up running here you have it half-way made to become a marathon runner because you just expect it to be hard and boring,” she joked.
Although she gave up competitive running several decades ago, Jane said she still runs regularly.
Jane also noted how pleased she was to share the stage with Neysa at the induction ceremony and the impact Neysa had on her life.
In fact, Jane turned down the honor a year ago but accepted the invitation to be inducted this year when she learned Neysa was also going to be inducted.
“I don’t know if I would have become a runner if it wasn’t for Neysa Villa. She did so much to provide opportunities for me. I think I was in the right place at the right time; I was in her town.
“Neysa would haul us in her station wagon back in the days before seatbelts, piled up with little kids” to meets across the state,” she said. She also recalled how Neysa took several athletes in her motorhome to compete in national championships in Tennessee and North Carolina.
“She was just a fountain of energy,” she said.
In 1986, Jane moved to Alaska and the following year she married Bill Wiebe. They live in Homer where they are involved in the fishing industry. They have a son, Miles, who is a third-year mechanical engineering student at Stanford University, who has been part of the family operation.
The primary focus of the business in recent years has been tendering in Bristol Bay — using their boat to transport fish caught by fishers and transporting them to a processing plant on shore.
But in recent years Jane has been able to spend more time as a homemaker, gardener and beekeeper.
“I’m so busy,” she says.
She also volunteers in a hospice program and with “Girls on the Run,” a non-profit after-school program that encourages preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running.
And she continues to remain active on the recreational/physical fitness front herself— running, biking, cross-country skiing. Jane said she spends at least an hour exercising every day — running seven miles or the equivalent.
“I exercise every morning because I’m an (physical fitness) addict,” she said. “I got addicted in college and it’s been part of my life ever since.”
After the awards, Jane went hiking in Zion National Park, Utah. Reached by cell phone this week, she reflected more on the award. She said while initially reluctant to get the award, after visiting her home state and seeing old friends from Freeman, she realized how much the award meant.
“It really was fun to go back there and see people and feel like they care and that they’re proud of me,” she said. “It was touching that they’re proud of me and care about me and still claim me. It’s an honor after all this time they want to claim me as theirs. It’s very humbling.”
Neysa, who grew up in Creve Coeur, Ill., says she fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a nurse after marrying Dr. Jose Villa of the Philippines in 1950. After finishing his three years as an OB-GYN specialist, the Villa family, which by then included five children, moved to Freeman in May 1956.
After moving to Freeman, the Villa family doubled in size, growing to 10 children. And it was her interest in doing something for her children that set a remarkable volunteer spirit into motion.
“What began as my desire to create opportunities for my children and others in South Dakota, appears to have just filled a void that needed filling, especially for girls,” she noted in 2011 when she received an award at the South Dakota Girls and Women in Sport.
“At the time, during the early 1960s, Freeman High School had sports including football, basketball and track, and the summer sport was baseball — all of these for the boys. There were no girls high school sports that I was aware of in the state at that time.”
“My children are the reason this award has been given to me,” she said last week. Her efforts to provide opportunities for youth began “because there was a need for leisure and organized activities for youth outside the school program, not only in Freeman,” she said, but in other communities and across the state.
Not only were the Villa children active in sports, but they were also involved helping Neysa get newsletters folded and mailed, setting up for swim meets, attending AAU meetings, helping with registration for wrestling, cross-country, boxing, acting as committee chairpersons, coaching teams, assisting with clinics and adding support to Neysa’s activities.
The award ceremony noted, “in her efforts to provide sports activities for her children, she created an amazing legacy of volunteerism in amateur sports in South Dakota, especially in the AAU, from the 1960s to the early 1980s. She was instrumental in creating sports opportunities for thousands of youths of all abilities and circumstances in South Dakota and beyond.”
Her efforts included an active role in AAU, the Junior Olympics and the U.S. Olympic Committee. She founded the Freeman Athletic Club and was active in swimming, track, cross-country and wrestling competitions in Freeman and beyond.
Neysa left the local and state athletic programs in 1982 to pursue her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. After graduating from the University of S.D., with a doctorate in education administration in 1986, she moved to Mackinaw, Ill., where she cared for her aging parents. She worked at an alcohol and drug abuse treatment center for adolescent teens for seven-and-one-half years before retiring.
Neysa, who returned to South Dakota last weekend for the honor, was joined by 42 family members from across the country — literally from Florida to Alaska to Hawaii.
In her comments to the banquet audience, rather than focus on what she accomplished, Neysa spoke about the people who joined her in those efforts. She noted the volunteers “who answered my plea and were my supporters and mentors” including June Schamber and Don and LaVerne Diede.
Neysa singled out Freeman Public School administrators Al Mudder and Ron Bennett, noting “Freeman High School was important to us because we did expand our program into the school property and facilities.”
She also voiced appreciation to Sioux Falls coach Rich Greeno, who came to Freeman to help with training and give momentum to the young but growing program.
And, she noted, the parents were very important; “They gave their time, their energy, their expertise.”
“My gratitude goes to each of you,” she said.
As Neysa left the stage to a strong ovation from the crowd, master of ceremonies Jeff Fylling noted “(It’s) pretty ‘South Dakotan’ to hear someone give their entire speech at the hall of fame thanking other people.”
Last weekend, Neysa was typically low-key about being inducted into the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame. Being together with all 10 of her children — plus some of their children and grandchildren — as part of the event was a highlight, she said.
Her focus has always been on the opportunities created for youth and that was evident last weekend as she saw many of those youth, grown with jobs and families of their own. She said she enjoyed the opportunity to visit with friends — both hers and those of her children — at the Sunday reception.