Thomas B. Wheeler, Duluth business and community leader in philanthropy, sports and culture, died June 26 of natural causes in Tucson, AZ. He passed away unexpectedly but peacefully and quickly, just as he would have wanted.
Tom was born on April 22, 1946, in Duluth to Mildred and Hubert Wheeler. As the second of five children, Tom enjoyed spending time with his siblings in a very active household that valued community engagement. He was educated in Duluth public schools and graduated from East High School in 1964.
An avid sports enthusiast and gifted athlete, he played baseball, tennis, football and hockey at many levels, especially hockey, which he played with considerable success for Duluth East and Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., from which he graduated in 1968.
Following college he played hockey professionally in Sweden and Austria where he made lifelong friends and mastered the Swedish and German languages. In his colorful hockey career in Europe, he lit up the scoreboard in all ways with many goals, assists and also penalties. He played sports with the same approach he had for life- with determination and grit. Returning to Sweden years later for a ceremony at the rink where he had played, the local newspaper took a photo of him in the penalty box where, as they said, “he spent much time.”
Tom remained a hockey advocate throughout his life, often saying, “Hockey has done much for Duluth and Duluth has done much for hockey.” He was a longtime coach and overall supporter in Duluth hockey programs as well as one of the founding contributors to the Duluth Heritage Sports Center where The Thomas B. Wheeler College Wall was created to honor him and commemorate Duluth college hockey players.
Following his years in Europe, Tom joined his father and eventually his brother, Jim at Wheeler Associates, in building a successful financial services firm that in recent years has passed to his son Andy and a third generation of the family. Last December, a portrait of Tom joined one of his father in the Wheeler office honoring his significant contribution to the firm.
In 1971 Tom married Dale Heimbach in Duluth. In her, he found a match for his energy, athleticism and zest for life, a life cut short by her tragic death in 1983, leaving him with their three young children. Tom decided he could most honor Dale by focusing on the children, becoming deeply involved in their lives and giving them opportunities in education and life that would help them find their own joy, success and happiness.
Tom was in a blended family for many years and continued to want all of its members to have happiness and joy in their lives including step-daughters Kara Goucher, Kelly Grgas Wheeler and Kendall Schoolmeester.
In 2005, on the 150th anniversary of his great-grandfather’s 160-mile walk from St. Paul to Duluth to start a lumber mill, Tom recreated the walk going to great lengths to follow the same route and wear similar attire, all to honor the man who brought the family to Duluth to the location that is now Wheeler Field. To train for this he walked every section of every single street in Duluth.
In 2006 Tom met Fariba Pendleton and they have since enjoyed their time together, in recent years dividing their time seasonally between Duluth and Tucson and took great joy from his connections with her two children, Caitlin and Jason (Katie) and their daughter Vivian.
Tom took on a cherished role as a grandfather, known as Grandpa Whee; now six grandchildren. He loved taking them on hikes, hosting them for sleepovers and providing numerous activities to their delight.
Tom supported numerous community organizations over the years. Among his more notable organizations are the Duluth Area YMCA, Camp Miller, the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation where he served as board chair and the Duluth Playhouse, where he served as board chair and became deeply involved in the restoration and revitalization of the NorShor Theater. He was a member of First United Methodist Church, and groups within the church, Rotary Club of Duluth #25, helped found Duluth Friends of Tennis at Longview, along with Al Anon, Upper Rice Lake Duck Club and numerous book clubs.
Tom learned at the age of 18 that he had a heart condition, and with that knowledge he considered each day a gift. In difficult times he would say, “In times like these, it is important to remember that there have been times like these.”
Tom was preceded in death by his wife, Dale Heimbach Wheeler; his parents, Mildred Strobel Wheeler and Hubert D. Wheeler; and his special step-mother Arle Wheeler.
He is survived by Fariba Pendleton, a daughter, Carrie (Patrick) Heffernan; two sons, Nathan (Kevin Roth) Wheeler, Andrew (Becky) Wheeler; and six grandchildren, Benjamin, Nicholas and Ashton Heffernan; Julia Roth-Wheeler and Landon and Addison Wheeler; two sisters, Susan McLaren (the late Robert) and Nancy (Chuck) Wheeler Handlon; two brothers, Jim (Ann) Wheeler and David (Edward Summers) Wheeler and many cherished cousins, nephews, nieces and very close friends.
The immediate family will gather for a burial service and a celebration of life will be scheduled when congregating is possible.
Memorials can be sent to First United Methodist Church, The Duluth Playhouse, and the Duluth Area YMCA.