When it came to serving his fellow military veterans, Pete Wheeler was persistent.
Failing health could not stop him. Medical leave only kept him out of the office.
From his room at the Eagles’ Nest nursing facility at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, Wheeler made twice-daily phone calls to his assistants to stay on top of things and had paperwork sent over for his approval. He vowed to return to work.
After more than six decades as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, Wheeler died April 21 at the VA hospital that he was instrumental in getting the funds to build. He was 92.
His funeral will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at Decatur First United Methodist Church. A committal service will be at 1 p.m. Monday at the Georgia Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Milledgeville, where his wife Geraldine Wheeler is buried.
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“I knew that Pete would never retire. I always said that he would go straight from his job to Heaven and he did,” said William J. Steele of Eastman, Ga., who served under Wheeler in the Georgia Army National Guard. “He was my mentor and an inspiration. He had a fire in his belly for the people who sacrificed for this country. He ran a tight ship, and kept his hands on the wheel all the time.”
Wheeler began working for the veterans department in 1949 as director of the education division. Five years later, he was running the department, a post held for 61 years. Georgia’s longest serving commissioner, he worked under 12 governors, from Herman Talmadge to Nathan Deal.
“He once told me that if he had been working in the tax office, he would have retired 30 years ago,” said department spokesman Jon Suggs. “But because he was working to help veterans, that made it easier to keep going. You don’t do something for 66 years if you don’t love it.”
Wheeler became a highly respected advocate of veterans locally and nationally and a sought-after expert on veterans benefits. Politicians appointed him to boards and commissions. Veterans groups honored him. Under his leadership, the department built nursing homes, hospitals and cemeteries and created programs to educate veterans about benefits. One was the Supermarket of Veterans Benefits, an annual event that brings together federal, state and local agencies for a one-stop shop of information. Wheeler started it in 1966 to support returning Vietnam veterans and it became a model for other states.
Shortly after he became the department head in 1954, Wheeler led the state effort to recognize the new federal holiday, Veterans Day. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed him chairman of the National World War II Memorial Advisory Board, which he led until the memorial’s dedication in May 2004.
In the early 1960s, Wheeler helped obtain funding to build the VA medical facility in Decatur. He later worked with federal officials to open a regional office next to the hospital and got funds to have a pedestrian bridge built between the two facilities.
“He was one of my mentors and good friends,” said Hershel Gober, the national legislative director for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. “He was a legend. There’s nobody like Pete Wheeler. He was the heart and soul of the veterans department. Georgia was very fortunate to have him all these years.”
Gober said that when he led the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs, he often called Wheeler for advice. They also partnered on programs while Gober was deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the Clinton Administration.
“He was a gentleman and a patriot,” said Dan Holtz, the department’s assistant commissioner. “He definitely loved what he was doing. It’s quite a legacy, not only for veterans in the state but also nationally.”
He was particularly proud of the upward-pointing stained glass windows he designed for the chapels at the Milledgeville and Glennville veterans cemeteries, said his daughter Frances Jones of Atlanta. “That was a huge thing for Daddy,” she said. “He always said they’re pointing up because that’s the direction we’re going.”
Wheeler was born in Albany, Ga., on Oct. 19, 1922. He grew up on a farm in Crawford, Ga., where his grandfather owned a lumber mill. As a teenager, he set up Pete’s Place snack stand and sold Baby Ruth candy bars and Coca-Colas to the mill workers. He also raised pigs, some to sell and some to eat. “His favorite food was bacon,” his daughter said.
At the University of Georgia, Wheeler and Talmadge were roommates. He joined the cavalry unit of the Army ROTC, then switched to infantry after he fell off a horse. After graduating, he was an Army infantry instructor in California during World War II. In 1950, he joined the Georgia National Guard and retired as a brigadier general in 1978. He also earned a law degree.
While visiting a friend at the Atlanta VA hospital, he met Army Cadet nurse Geraldine “Gerry” Odenweller. He proposed after he landed a job and finished building her a house. The couple married on his birthday in 1949 and had three children. She died in 2009, after 59 years of marriage and of crisscrossing the country with him in support of veterans causes.
“Service was instilled in us early,” his daughter said. “Every family vacation was a working vacation. He was always speaking to a veterans group or going to a conference. Along the way, we stopped at landmarks, national parks and military cemeteries. He felt this was our country, and we needed to know it and be proud of it.”
Earlier this year while on medical leave, Wheeler approved the next addition to the state’s war veterans memorial complex (named in his honor in 1998), a memorial to veterans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will be dedicated May 20.
Up until his death, he reminded his staff and his family that he was always available if they needed him. “I’d call him at Eagle’s Nest every night. He’d say, ‘I’ve got my cellphone on 24 hours. Call if you need me,’ ” Jones said. “He was concerned about everybody and everything until the end.”
In addition to his daughter Frances, Wheeler is survived by his son Peter B. “Chip” Wheeler of Lawrenceville and six grandchildren.