Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Mr. Wheeler (Jim) was a science teacher at Washington. I had him for 2nd hour. I also had him as my homeroom teacher my first three years of high school. Mr. Wheeler was also the father of fellow graduate Richard Wheeler. I believe he originally hailed from St. Louis.

I remember my first day of school, freshman year. I felt like a little boy lost. I didn't know my way around the school at all. But I knew my homeroom was on the third floor somewhere. I walked up the steps, walked a few feet, then was promptly laughed at by a couple of older students. Was it my T-shirt? Was it my hair? Who knows. But I felt awful. I ducked into the first room I saw. Once inside, I looked at the door. It said, "Mr. Wheeler." I realized that I had miraculously ducked into where I belonged. What a nightmare feeling those first few minutes were though.

I took a seat in the back right corner. I kept that seat for all three years. I felt a little more comfortable when some familiar faces sat nearby - Chris Thee, Richard Wheeler and Wyatt Wood. Chris sat right next to me. Although on day two, Richard did - and also stayed there for three years.

Wheeler seemed like a really nice guy. A couple lost students wandered in after the bell rang. He welcomed them in, letting them know it was ok, and no big deal. He knew he was dealing with a bunch of freshman, many of whom no doubt had some nervousness. I liked him. When I saw that I was going to have him for 2nd hour, I was glad.

See my entry on Keith Welnicke (or Mike Zeman) for one of only two times I ever saw Mr. Wheeler get angry. I'll get to the other time a few paragraphs from now.

For science class, I shared a table with Julie Scott. Toby Schwartz was on her left, Troy Rezachek was next to Toby. I think Tom Messman sat in front of me. He was a junior who had failed the class as a freshman.

I had no interest in science. And it reflected in my grades. On occasion, we got to break into pairs to do some small projects in class. Those were the best days. Toby and I always paired up, and goofed around more than we learned.

When he had a beard, Mr. Wheeler sort of looked like Ringo Starr.

Mr. Wheeler told us a story of how he had been to Hawaii - I believe the year before. Despite being warned not to take any lava rocks (because of a curse) from a certain mountain, he did so anyway. Shortly after returning home, he broke his jaw. Coincidence? Who knows. I do know that he was given codeine for the pain. Richard said he dipped into it from time to time to get a cheap high. His dad never finished the prescription, and kept it on the top shelf above the sink in the kitchen.

One day Mr. Wheeler showed us a filmstrip about water pollution. In it, an old prospector dipped his jug into the water, only to have it come up with this nasty brown foam. Toby and I laughed about it, as we remembered seeing the exact same filmstrip five years earlier, when all the 4th grade classes at Magee got together to watch it in Mrs. Sanville's room.

I ended up getting a "C" or "D" for the first semester. But the second semester was lost. I basically gave up and stopped paying attention. About a week or two before the year was over, I went up to Mr. Wheeler's room after school one day, to ask him if there were anyway possible I could still pass the semester. I remember it well. Trina Taddy happened to be in there talking to him that day. When I asked him if there was any chance, he simply shook his head and said, "I don't know son. I don't know." He knew though. I was sunk.

Mr. Wheeler was often the first teacher at school each and everyday. He only lived a block or two away. So he would put on his backpack and walk, often arriving around 7:00. I know this because during the last month or so of school, I too would arrive that early. Why was I there? Well, that was the time that Ron Gretz, Mike Zeman and myself would take down ceiling tiles in the basement gym. See Ron Gretz' entry for the deatils on that.

On one of the last days of school, Mr. Wheeler went into a small tirade in class, complaining about the fact that somebody had stolen his final exam. He was pissed about it! Either that day or the next day, Wheeler approached me privately and said, "I'm over it. I don't want to talk about it. But I know that you're the one who stole my exam." I was floored. And I was pissed off! Being the kid I was, I often got accused for stuff I didn't do. It was the nature of the game. And let me tell you something, being falsely accused of something really, REALLY pissed me off! I swore to him that I hadn't done it. But he refused to believe me. I walked out of his room fuming. I briefly contemplated grabbing the garbage can that was right outside his door, and tossing it into his room while cussing him out. But it was post-tile. And my cooler head prevailed. I was in enough trouble at that time.

In all honesty, I did not take his exam. If I did, I'd freely admit it now. But I didn't do it.

During my sophomore and junior years, Richard and I were best friends. He told me that during that time, his dad was unbelievably pissed about it, and swore up and down that I was "the only one" who could have possibly done it. But that's wrong. Someone else obviously was capable.

So I broke it down. How did he come to blame me? I think it's quite simple. He knew I came to school very early, and had access to his room. Wheeler would unlock his door, then would leave to go to the teachers' lounge or somewhere else. So his room was unattended and easy picking for any potential thief. Also, he remembered that I had come to him a few weeks before the end of the year, asking if there was any way I could still pass. I can easily see how all the fingers would point at me. But as observant as Mr. Wheeler was, he failed to notice one thing. Starting with the day after we got caught for the ceiling tile incident, I no longer came to school early. I slept in, and ended up getting to school right before 8:00. The exam was allegedly stolen sometime before 8:00, when the classroom was presumably empty - probably before 7:30. I was most likely still sleeping when the real thief stole the exam.

Near the beginning of my sophomore year, Mr. Wheeler handed out our chool pictures to us after school one day. I took an awful picture. When I write about Mr. Wood, I'll provide the details on how that happened. But my parents hadn't ordered any pictures. So I wasn't expecting anything. But apparently there was one proof that was availbale for each student. Wheeler called to me by my locker and said, "Burton son, get this ridiculous thing out of my hand." I looked at the photo and laughed my ass off. You could barely see me. And it was awful! I can forgive Mr. Wheeler for referring to it as "ridiculous." He was being kind.

In my junior year, both Richard and I had Mr. Wheeler for pathology class. It was a small class made up of juniors and seniors. For whatever reason, we kept a log of every single question that Wheeler asked in class. And we kept a score of who answered the most. We gave everyone a nickname. In the end, I finished third from last, behind Brian "The Animal" Belongia and some girl named Kris, who we just referred to as "Babe." I think the girl was class of 1988's Kris Koch. But I'm not sure. The other people in there were class of 1988's Paul "Mr. Touche" Knox, Jennifer "Air" Kern, Londa "Bleeks" Bleeker and Andrea "Adrian" Gleason. From our class, there was myself (The Walrus) Richard "The Key" Wheeler, Brian Belongia and Craig Rysticken. For the most part, we referred to Craig as "Pussy." But in time, we changed his nickname to "Chuck Norris." I'd forgotten that until just now. You can see that the overall winner was "no one." That was left to Mr. Wheeler to answer, when nobody knew the answer. Richard ended up finishing second. But he only surpassed Jen Kern in the end, because as a senior, Jen missed the last several days of class. You can see the final results below.

I sat next to a senior named Paul Knox. I think Richard was on my right. But at some point, Mr. Wheeler separated us, and put Richard at the table behind me. Anyway, Paul would take toothpicks (at home) and boil them in mint or cinnamon. Then he'd suck on them. I was never one for toothpicks myself. But I tried a few. One day he gave me one, but warned me not to try it in class because it was too hot. I tried it anyway, and immediately started to gasp and suck in air. Paul started laughing. And Mr. Wheeler yelled at both of us - mostly me though. I couldn't even respond to him, as my mouth was on fire.

It was in pathology class where Craig Rysticken coined the phrase "Satan dickheads" in reference to Richard and I. God that was funny.

Mr. Wheeler was the coach of girls' track - or cross country. Perhaps it was both. Is there a difference? I don't know. Strangely enough, Wheeler told us that running is horrible for your feet and knees. He said walking was much better.

All in all, Mr. Wheeler was one of the nicest teachers I've ever dealt with. I never did all that great in his classes. But that certainly wasn't his fault. Despite the trouble I got into at the end of my freshman year, he never seemed to mind that I became best friends with his son. And despite the fact that he thought I stole his exam, he seemed to put it behind him, and never treated me poorly because of it. You have to respect a guy who refuses to hold a grudge.

I think Mr. Wheeler retired a few years ago. I believe he and his wife still live in Two Rivers. Although I believe they now live on the northeast side, not far from the likes of Craig Rysticken and Nick Novachek. I've run into him only once since high school. He returned a movie to the video store. I saw Richard's mom every so often. But I only saw Mr. Wheeler that one time. I've always regretted not telling him that I honestly didn't steal his exam. This long after the fact, I'm sure he'd believe me. The next time I run into him, I will tell him for sure.

UPDATE - Thanks to the above link supplied by Monica Knutson, I was able to find these two pictures of Mr. Wheeler.


At Wed Aug 02, 07:00:00 PM PDT, Blogger MarkC said...

Never had Mr. Wheeler, but I know he was really into motorcycles and aviation with aviation being his favorite.

I'm pretty sure he was into European motorcycles like BMW, BSA, Triumph, Norton, or Moto Guzzi which I personally think is pretty cool! I think Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Kern had a similar love for motorcycles.

At Sat Dec 09, 10:28:00 PM PST, Blogger CreativeMuse said...

A few memories about Mr Wheeler...

He was the bridge tender and operated the 17th St bridge during the summers. I'd stop and say "hi" to him if I was pedaling by on my bike.

I had him for an elective Aviation class either senior or junior year. He certainly was passionate about flying! He took the class on a field trip to the Sheboygan airport for a fly-in / air show, as well as the Manitowoc airport for a pancake and sausage breakfast.

He still works as a flight instructor at the Manitowoc airport if you want to get in touch with him. Here's their site: Lakeshore Aviation

He did coach Cross Country in the fall and track in the Spring. On the track team, he coached the long distance runners and the triple and long jumpers.



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