Leyden Wall of Fame inductee grows beyond expectations
Photo by Brian Tietz
Updated: October 14, 2012 12:22PM
FRANKLIN PARK — When Nola Theiss graduated from West Leyden High School, societal expectations for women were limited.
“At that time, in 1964, if you were a smart girl, you would be a teacher, nurse or secretary,” Theiss said.
Theiss, who will be inducted into the Leyden Alumni Wall of Fame on Sept. 27, became a teacher. The former Northlake resident also started a business, married a rocket scientist, was appointed mayor, earned two masters degrees from an Ivy League college and started a non-profit.
Perhaps she accomplished so much by getting an early start. She was moved ahead two grades in elementary school and started West Leyden High School at age 12.
“It was embarrassing to be 12 when I was a freshman,” Theiss said. “I wanted to pretend I was older.”
When she graduated in 1964 at age 16, she attended MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill. then transferred to the University of Illinois, where she earned a degree in English education.
She got married right after college and moved with her husband to Maryland. He worked for the federal government and she taught high school English for 10 years.
“In the 1970s, teachers were encouraged to develop their own classes,” Theiss said. “It was great. I created curriculum and taught courses on the history of English and new approaches to grammar. Also photography.”
While teaching, she earned a masters degree in liberal arts from Johns Hopkins University. Her first marriage broke up and Theiss traveled. After four years, she remarried, this time to a man who worked for NASA. They had a child and Theiss started to think about what she wanted to do next.
At the time, knitting and crochet were popular, particularly French patterns. Theiss had studied French for nine years and become a translator of the French patterns. Then she expanded.
“I decided I could start a company and translate into any language,” Theiss said. “By the time we were done, we were translating 12 different languages, including Japanese. We were producing books. That led to importing yarn and selling it wholesale.“
That was in 1981. She ran the business for 20 years, though cut back when she and her husband moved to Sanibel Island, a city of around 6,000 or 7,000 off Florida’s Gulf Coast.
In Sanibel she began to volunteer for the historical society, then was appointed to the historical preservation commission. She was asked to join the city planning commission.
Nine months later she was asked to run for city council and was elected. During her four years on the council, she earned a second masters degree at Johns Hopkins University, in public administration.
“Every course I took, I would do my papers based on Sanibel Island,” Theiss said.
In 1999, the city council appointed her mayor, making her only the third woman mayor in Sanibel’s history. She served for two years.
In the summer of 2004, Theiss attended a conference of an organization called Zonta International, which aims to improve the lives of women worldwide. She learned about sex trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“We went to the conference and said, gosh, is it happening in Florida?” Theiss said. She found it was, only 50 or so miles away in Amocoli, Fla. Along with her Zonta Club in Sanibel Island, she decided to do something.
“It’s good to be a mayor, but better to be a former mayor,” Theiss said. “You have the most respect when running or after serving.”
In November 2004 she used that respect to talk to the newly elected sheriff, who assigned some of his men to work on sex trafficking issues. During the summer of 2005, the sheriff’s department received a federal grant to work on sex trafficking. And in 2006, Theiss started a non-profit called the Human Trafficking Awareness Partnership.
She now travels around the U.S. and internationally to raise awareness of sex trafficking. She also helps communities create their own anti trafficking programs.
Those honored with induction to the Leyden Wall of Fame speak to students. On Sept. 27 and 28, Theiss plans to tell students that birthplace does not equal destiny.
“When you live in a community like Northlake or Franklin Park, it can make you feel what you can do in the future depends on where you were born,” Theiss said. “If you take advantage of education and don’t let yourself be limited, then you have tremendous opportunities. I feel like I’ve accomplished a whole lot in my life, more than I expected as a kid.”