Lisa Wheeler 2020 UND Sioux Award Recipient

Lisa Wheeler, ’75, ’82, had a legacy to uphold. She followed a long line of family, from cousins to grandparents, who all earned degrees from the University of North Dakota.

“My parents said we could go to any university we wanted, as long as it was in Grand Forks, North Dakota,” she says. “They believed that we could get as good of an education there as anywhere. And you know, I think they were probably right.”

Unsure of which area of study she wanted to pursue, Lisa embarked on her education with one goal in mind: to learn a skill. And so, she pursued her Bachelor of Science degree in physical therapy, becoming a member of UND’s fifth graduating physical therapy class. As an undergrad she worked at the UND Alumni Association under the guidance of Earl Strinden. Upon graduation, she worked at Mercy Hospital in Devils Lake, N.D., and nine months later moved to Columbus, Ohio, to work at Ohio State University Medical Center’s rehabilitation facility for patients dealing with spinal cord injuries, head injuries and strokes. While working there, Lisa was on the rehab team led by Dr. Ernie Johnson who is considered to be the founding father of the Association of Academic Physiatrists.

The work, she says, was rewarding. “I absolutely loved it, but it was emotionally exhausting.”

After four years, Lisa decided that she wanted to return to North Dakota. “My father was a lawyer and I had a sister and brother-in-law attending UND Law School so I decided to try law school and work in the ‘family store’.”

In fact, when her law school application asked why she wanted to attend, she merely stated that she wanted to work with her dad and sister. “I didn't appreciate that an essay on describing my love of the law would have been more appropriate,” Lisa laughs.

She returned to UND, this time to the School of Law, in 1979. To pay for her continuing education, she worked as a physical therapist on weekends at the rehab center in Grand Forks. During Christmas and spring break vacations she would drive to clinics in Greenbush and Roseau, Minnesota.

“In my physical therapy studies, I knew that if I understood everything in a specific book for a specific course, that I would do OK,” she said. “That’s not so in law school. It was a totally different kind of education.”

After earning her juris doctor in 1982, Lisa moved to Bismarck to work in her father’s law firm.

“It was hard to go from physical therapy where you’re nurturing to the legal profession where there’s conflict.”

So, in August of 1987, when John Korsmo offered her the opportunity to enter the field of real estate law reading abstracts for The Title Company of Fargo she jumped on it, seeing it as a chance to continue practicing law without the stress of trial work. After four months, Lisa convinced John to start a law firm with her.

When John made the decision to divest, Lisa bought the hard assets to the company, taking over as president of one of the first independent escrow and closing companies in the state and continuing her role in the law firm.

A natural leader, Lisa says she didn’t “manage” anyone or anything – but she taught herself accounting, HR, and how to read financial statements. When she bought the company, it employed five people. Under Lisa’s leadership, The Title Company grew to 28 employees and three attorneys before her retirement in 2015, when she sold the majority of the company stock to her sister, two nephews and other key employees. Her nephew-in-law purchased the law firm from her.

“It was a great career and a great opportunity, and I was just lucky,” Lisa says – noting that interest rates were relatively low during most of her tenure and North Dakota weathered the impact of the 2008 recession better than many areas of the country. “It’s the story of my life – I have enjoyed an abundant amount of luck.”

In the early days, The Title Company was predominantly run by women. “It wasn’t until years later that we hired a few men – and it wasn’t that we didn’t want them, it’s just that the women were more qualified,” Lisa said, reflecting her mother’s early feminist positions.

Lisa is proud that she not only led a successful company, but that The Title Company provided an opportunity for other women to gain valuable experience in the real estate industry. Many of her employees went on to become leaders in the Fargo-Moorhead community, mortgage lending industry, and trusted and valued employees in various national title insurance companies.

She lent her leadership experience to the UND Alumni Association & Foundation Board of Directors, serving out three 3-year terms including one term as chair of the governance committee.

“I was really blessed to be on the board of the Alumni Association,” she said. “I got much more out of it than I contributed. I am certain of that.”

She has also served on the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners, Pelican Group of Lakes Improvement District, and the City of Fargo Board of Adjustment.

When considering today’s students, Lisa has some advice: “Take an accounting class, take a business class, and stay connected to your university. Give $50 a year if that's what you can budget – it’s enough to keep you connected. And the rewards that come with continuing that relationship throughout your career are so great.”

She has generously supported various UND initiatives throughout the years, including scholarships for students at the School of Law and the School of Physical Therapy, the UND Athletics High Performance Center, and more.

When asked what she considers her greatest accomplishment, she doesn’t hesitate. It came on October 26, 2019, when UND head football coach Bubba Schweigert asked her to throw the coin toss at the Fighting Hawks football game vs. Montana State.

“As I’m walking on the field, Coltyn Sanderson said to me, ‘You know, no pressure Lisa, but every time we win the toss at home, we win the game.’”

The Fighting Hawks won the toss, and won the game in a 16-14 thriller against a nationally ranked opponent.

Must’ve been that UND legacy luck.

— By Alyssa Konickson, '06, UND Alumni Magazine Writer