Duluth-area businessman, philanthropist and regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page Tom Wheeler, 74, died Friday at his home in Tucson, Arizona.
For the past few years, the lifelong Duluthian split his time between Tucson and Duluth. Patrick Heffernan, his son-in-law and co-worker at Wheeler Associates, said Wheeler would normally be back to Duluth by this time of year, but he was waiting to see how the COVID-19 pandemic would play out.
"He had an absolute love for Duluth," Heffernan said. "He instilled the importance of community in me and the rest of his family and firm. He was just a huge believer that a community is what community makes it."
Wheeler was born into a family with deep roots in Duluth. His great-grandfather, Henry W. Wheeler, was one of Duluth's pioneers, starting a sawmill in the city in the 19th century.
Henry completed a 150-mile walk from Stillwater, Minnesota, to Duluth to scout the location — a walk Tom Wheeler recreated in 2005 to raise money for the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation. The News Tribune reported at the time that Tom wore period-authentic clothing, carried his own bedroll of woolen blankets, ate food he carried with him in a small sack and slept on the ground along the 12-day trek.
"That's typical of Tom. He was very careful in his preparation," Heffernan said. "He went on long walks to prepare his shoes and slept in his brother Jim's backyard."
Tom Wheeler was born on April 22, 1946, in Duluth. While growing up, he attended the Duluth YMCA's Camp Miller with his family. He was the second generation to attend the camp and would go on to support the YMCA financially and with volunteer work.
"He and I started a volunteer workday where we'd take a Friday in May to bring our associates to Camp Miller to prepare the camp and volunteer," said Jim Wheeler, Tom's brother and business partner at Wheeler Associates.
Tom graduated from Duluth East High School in 1964, where he was a well-known athlete. He played football, hockey and tennis and went on to play hockey for his four years at Hamilton College in New York. Following college graduation, he played four years of hockey in Austria and Switzerland.
When he left the U.S., Tom spoke neither German nor Swedish, but returned fluent in both. Jim Wheeler visited his brother during his final season in Austria.
"That was definitely a highlight for me, that trip to Europe at 16," Jim said. "On his days off, we'd go downhill skiing in the Alps. It was exciting to be there and see him play."
Back in Duluth, Tom joined the family insurance and financial-planning business, Wheeler Associates, which his father Hugh Wheeler started in 1934. The company handles insurance, pension and 401(k) plans for more than 250 employers throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. Tom worked alongside his father and brother, Jim, and later welcomed his son, Andy Wheeler, and son-in-law, Heffernan, to the team.
He worked with the firm for nearly 50 years. Heffernan said he "never officially retired, but quietly scaled back his time" with the firm. That's when Heffernan and Andy decided it was time to honor him for his work and dedication.
Wheeler Associates moved offices and used that as an excuse to invite Tom's whole family to the new office. Once there, the associates presented Tom with a portrait of himself, which will hang in the new office alongside the portrait of Hugh.
"We've always had that portrait of his father, the founder, up in the office. So we wanted to surprise Tom and honor his years of dedication," Heffernan said. "All of his kids and grandkids and other family members were there. It's something I'll never forget."
Wheeler is also remembered as a family man. He was one of five siblings growing up. He married Dale Heimbach in 1971 and raised three children with her before her death by homicide in 1983. The case is still unsolved. He had six grandchildren, with a seventh on the way.
"He was very involved with his kids' lives," Jim said. "And he loved spending time with his grandchildren."
In addition to his work with the Duluth YMCA, Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation and Camp Miller, Wheeler served on numerous boards and community organizations. These included the Duluth Playhouse board, the Duluth Economic Development Authority, the Downtown Rotary Club 25, and the Essentia Health Duluth Heritage Center. In fact, the Duluth Heritage Sports Center has the Thomas B. Wheeler collegiate wall dedicated to him and his contributions.
"He was a community person to the core," Heffernan said. "And he inspired those who knew him to get involved too."