Remembering Richard Wheeler

Jun 27, 2019

Community members had a chance to share their fond memories of active library supporter, lifelong educator, and environmental advocate Richard Wheeler during a reception at the Wareham Free Library on Thursday night. 

Although his roots have always been in New England, Wheeler spent his 88 years traveling all over the world.

In his youth, Wheeler and his brothers hunted and fished in the marshes of Marshfield. As a young adult, Wheeler received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University, where he was a competitive swimmer. After his graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he trained in scuba and swimming for combat.

In 1953, Wheeler served in the Korean War. After his war service, Wheeler continued his education at Harvard where he received a Master's Degree. Wheeler devoted his adult life to education and conservation: training Peace Corps volunteers in Fiji, setting up turtle hatcheries across the South Pacific, and teaching at secondary schools across the country.

Wheeler was passionate and outspoken about the human impact on the planet and relentless in his efforts to save the oceans, fisheries, and wildlife of the Northeast Atlantic. At the age of 61, Wheeler kayaked almost 1500 miles, from Newfoundland to Buzzards Bay, retracing the migratory path of an extinct bird, the Great Auk. The american television series NOVA later produced a film about his journey, called "The Haunted Cry of a Long Gone Bird.”

In 1998, Wheeler was named one of Time Magazine's "Heroes of the Planet," and in 2010 he was featured in the historic photographic collection, "Face to Face: Ocean Portraits." 

His kayak trips, which continued into his 80s, fueled fundraisers for the Wareham Free Library. The cause dear to him and his wife Sandra Wheeler. He once described the library as  “Wareham’s shining light.” In total, he raised $65,000 dollars for the library. 

In 2011, Wheeler circumnavigated Cape Ann on a 20-mile trip and also paddled 12 miles from Wareham to Marion’s Bird Island. In September of that same year, he competed in the Waikiki Roughwater Challenge in Hawaii, a 2.3-mile swim in the Kapua Channel across Waikiki.

In 2012, at age 81, Wheeler kayaked once again to show how Buzzards Bay’s communities and people are connected by water. He embarked on a 281-mile paddle around the Bay’s shoreline, beginning in the Westport River and ending on Penikese Island. Along the way, he met up with school children on Coalition-led outdoor exploration programs.

In addition to paddling, Wheeler also participated for years in the Buzzards Bay Swim, bringing his years of training as a U.S. Navy frogman to the 1.2-mile open-water crossing of outer New Bedford Harbor. The event’s Wheeler Watershed Challenge Cup, awarded to the fastest team, is named in his honor.

A friend of the Wareham Land Trust, Wheeler was the first to start nesting turtles in Wareham’s Community Gardens, and in 2010 he rescued an injured bald eagle from Onset Beach.

Wheeler passed away in Boston on January 31, 2019. He was 88. He spent nearly 30 years in marriage with his wife. 

“We were married on June 4, probably the coldest fourth of June in history, it was 43 degrees. We were all dressed up in summer dresses, it was freezing, but it was a lovely day,” said Sandra Wheeler. “Wheeler was wearing his father’s beautiful Navy cape and he was warm, the rest of us, not so much. It was a lovely wending, and we had happy years together. It was a good run.”

During the reception, guests shared fond memories of Wheeler. 

“We were doing a scoops for Spinney, and we were sitting in front of the ice cream place collecting money, and Dick came around and his pockets were bulging — he had been picking cigarette butts as he walked from the house,” remembered the President of the Friends of the Wareham Free Library, Priscilla Porter. “He came from the South Boulevard, he got his ice cream, he chit-chatted, gave us a donation and then walked down to Town Hall so he can clean butts from those streets as he traveled home.”

Sandy Slavin remembered Wheeler as one of the founding members of the Wareham Community Gardens and said that garden members used one of the Wheeler’s plots to assemble a picnic table that now functions as a “group gathering point.” 

“Dick started out with one plot, a month later he had another plot, he took down a tree to get two more plots and it then became a competition whose garlic would be harvested first,” said Slavin. “Dick loved his gardens. He had a huge passion for growing potatoes. He harvested those potatoes and he gave them all away.” 

Another guest talked about Wheeler's love for the Cape Verdean community.

“Dick loved his Cape Verdean community. If you ever saw Richard, he would be wearing his t-shirt with Cape Verdean flag,” said Winna Dean. 

The Friends of the Wareham Free Library has a memorial fund in Richard Wheeler’s honor, which funds purchases of books about the environment and nature.