The health and physical education community was heartbroken to learn of the loss of Nancy Raso Eklund this week. Nancy had an incredible career as a teacher in Wyoming, and I had the special privilege of getting to know her as the executive director of Wyoming AHPERD and as the district director of SHAPE America’s Central District.
It was an honor to know her and I considered her a very dear friend.
I first met Nancy in Sioux Falls, SD, in January 2018, when I attended SHAPE America’s Central District conference. She emanated the warmth and friendliness that Central District is so well known for and embraced me, literally and figuratively, without reserve.
In fact, I can remember talking to Nancy for well over an hour in the middle of the conference, on some bleachers in the Sanford Pentagon. I suppose I’d been on my way to attend a session, but she stopped me to mention something, and Nancy being Nancy, she couldn’t stop herself from sharing many other ideas and thoughts once she got rolling.
I think most people who knew her would wholeheartedly agree — Nancy could talk the paint off a wall. But I was always happy to listen to her and had the good fortune to be able to do so many times over the past couple of years.
One of my most special memories is of being paired up with Nancy for SPEAK Out! Day in 2018. It was the first time I’d ever had the chance to participate in meetings with members of Congress to advocate for something I believed in.
I was a little nervous, not only because I was still so new as CEO and it was a very public setting, but also because I didn’t know what to expect. Nancy was the very best partner I could ever have hoped for and I learned SO MUCH from her that day.
I was amazed at the relationships she had in every single office we visited — staffers knew her and loved her! They greeted Nancy with open arms, excited to get photos and catch up with her. Stories were exchanged about the famous shrimp boil in Green River, about so and so’s neighbor’s daughter and who the latest interns were and whether Nancy — or her family — knew any of them.
And when it was time to get down to business, Nancy was a true pro. She knew her facts and she was passionate about the importance of ESSA Title IV, Part A funding and what it could do for kids in Wyoming.
There was no doubt in my mind when we left each meeting that Nancy had made an impact, and it was a powerful thing to experience.
It was on this day that Nancy shared a story about her teaching experience that will forever remain one of my favorites. Nancy was teaching at a small ranch school with just a handful of students. One day a little girl showed up for PE wearing cowgirl boots with spurs.
Nancy told me, “I looked at that sweet little child and said ‘oh honey … you can’t wear spurs for PE!’ and the little girl told me, ‘Oh no, Mrs. Eklund, my daddy is picking me up early and we’re going to the rodeo today!’”
We had such a laugh over that story, I had tears in my eyes. Nancy’s sense of humor was sharp and often unexpected.
It was stories like these, in part, that prompted me to really want to visit Wyoming and experience health and PE classes in Wyoming schools. I mentioned this to Nancy and shared that I’d be in the area anyway in the spring and could she possibly introduce me to a teacher or two who might let me visit?
Before I knew it, Nancy had organized an all-encompassing visit that included her meeting me in person in Jackson Hole, WY, with Shawna McIlney, who at the time was president of WY AHPERD. This was hands down the most transformative and incredible professional development experience I could have had as a new CEO of SHAPE America.
The teachers I met — Kim Hunt, Jim Jenkins, Warren Ostler, Pete Hoffman and many others — were incredible. Their passion for their students and their ability to connect with them was so evident.
And my time with Nancy and Shawna was equally important in shaping many of my thoughts and views as someone still so new to the SHAPE America community. I will forever be grateful for that time with them, thanks to Nancy’s efforts to organize everything.
People who knew Nancy also knew (probably within minutes of knowing her) that she REALLY loved Wyoming and all things Wyoming. In my office, I treasure the Wyoming flag she gave me, the pencil holder made from a Wyoming license plate, my Cowboy Code of Ethics card and calendar, and most especially the “Dream Big” ornament that Nancy gave me the first time I met her and our Central District leaders.
Nancy was one of the most generous and thoughtful people I have ever met, never arriving anywhere without a gift and handwritten note for everyone she knew. In fact, I remember her showing up at the SHAPE Montana conference last summer with a bottle of Wyoming wine for each of her female friends and an honest-to-goodness cooler with *chilled* Wyoming craft beer for a male friend.
We were all floored that she’d taken such care to make sure that the beer was cold when she gave it to him. That’s the kind of person Nancy was — always putting extra effort into everything she did.
Above all else, what I will remember about Nancy was her spirit and fire for ALWAYS fighting for what she believed in. Nancy was tireless and her passion and commitment inspired me every single time I talked with her or texted with her.
She was so funny — she often made me laugh till I cried — but she was also a true believer that if you make the hard choice and do what you truly believe is RIGHT, you can’t ever go wrong. It is this dedicated perseverance that I have held close and drawn from in the hardest moments of making my own leadership decisions.
I will miss our incredible leader — and my dear friend and mentor — so very much. But I will never forget her or the impact she made in our community.
A Celebration of Life Service will be held for Nancy Raso Eklund on Saturday, September 7 at 11 a.m. The service will be held at the Green River High School Auditorium (Green River, WY).
The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to either Wyoming AHPERD or SHAPE America.
Cards may be sent to: 705 Easy Street, Green River, WY 82935.
Stephanie Morris is a passionate advocate for effective PE and skills-based health programs in schools. She is CEO of SHAPE America and is also a mom to three kids, an enthusiastic runner and weight lifter, and a consummate chef. Her preferred pronouns are she/her/hers. Follow Stephanie on Twitter @SHAPEAmericaCEO or reach her at email@example.com.