Published: Mar 13, 2013 12:09 AM
Modified: Mar 13, 2013 12:09 AM
Richard Warren Wheeler, 79, died on February 27, 2013 at his home in Chapel Hill. The cause of death was cancer.
Dick was born in 1933 in rural southern Illinois, the fourth child of Lula Tyhurst Wheeler and Sylvan Wheeler. It was the Depression era and his father had lost his job, so the family moved to a farm and lived in a house (“three-rooms-and-a-path”) without electricity or indoor plumbing. They ate well because they had a big garden and livestock and Lula was a wonderful cook. Dick went to a one-room school through the fifth grade. Then the family moved to town, Robinson, Illinois, because his father was ill with cancer and could no longer do farm work; he died when Dick was 13. The thing Dick liked best about living in town was playing football. When he was a senior, he played guard on the varsity squad and was always proud that Robinson was undefeated, Eastern Illinois and Wabash Valley champions. Also, Dick was picked for the regional All Star Team. In college, he majored in physics and paid his own way by working heavy-lifting jobs during the summer and kitchen and cleaning duties during the school year. The last two years, he lived and worked at an ”Old Folks’ Home” near the campus. He graduated from Western Illinois University and entered the Air Force as an Aviation Cadet in 1955. An anecdote from his jet-fighter days: In 1957, the F-100 was still a new flying machine and engine failures were fairly common. One January morning, this happened to Dick’s plane. He had to eject and spent 30 minutes in Chesapeake Bay before being rescued. He left active duty in 1961 and spent the next five years as a Civil Service Air Reserve Technician. In 1966, he was hired as a pilot by American Airlines. Based in Chicago, he worked for American for the next 27 years. He loved his job – often said he was glad he didn’t have to work for a living – and his fondest memories were of the last four years when he flew international flights to Europe as Captain on the MD-80 and B-757/767.
Dick’s first marriage to Joy Poe ended in divorce in 1970 and Dick became a "single mom" to Dania, 9 years old and Shana, 8 years old. In 1975, he married Elizabeth Adams, also divorced and the mother of three girls, Lisa, Clare and Anne. Dick, Elizabeth and the five teen-age girls all lived in a house in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. By 1987 the girls had grown up and moved on. For the next five years, Dick and Elizabeth, enjoyed living in downtown Chicago. At age 60, when Dick had to take mandatory retirement, they came to Chapel Hill and Dick built his “dream house”, one floor of which is devoted to his woodworking shop. He loved to work and, though self-taught, was very skillful. He enjoyed helping anyone who asked him - neighbors, Community Church, and family. He would fly across the country when his children or other relatives needed assistance with a project. His family, friends and neighbors will miss this friendly, generous and compassionate man.
He is survived by his wife, two daughters, three step-daughters, five grandchildren, three siblings and a large extended family. At his request, there will not be a memorial service. Donations in his name can be made to the Habitat for Humanity, of Orange County, 88 Vilcom Center Drive, Suite L110, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514.
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