When he died last week, Pete Wheeler held the record as the longest serving head of a state agency. He had been the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Services since 1954.
He was appointed by Gov. Herman Tallmadge and reappointed by the next 11 governors, including Gov. Nathan Deal.
I didn’t get to know Pete Wheeler until the sunset of his life. His health was failing and he was dependent on a wheelchair to get around.
A friend of mine told me that I would enjoy visiting Wheeler’s office. I called and sort of invited myself up for a visit.
Pete Wheeler’s suite of offices was historic and whimsical. People that I recognized only from history books were in photographs with him. Photographs includes every well-known military figure from the last half-century. It started with the Truman presidency and continued through the current administration. Generals, such as William Westmoreland, Norman Swartzkopf and Colin Powell, were pictured to name a few.
A picture with just about every president was there, include one of Wheeler with the Kennedy brothers and both Presidents Bush.
Pete Wheeler served in the Army during World War II. During his tenure, he was made an honorary member of every other branch of the armed services. He continued his service in the National Guard until 1978, having attained the rank of brigadier general.
In addition to his military service, he was given top national awards by veterans’ organizations, including the American Legion and the VFW.
In 1994, President Clinton appointed Wheeler as chairman of the advisory board for the World War II Memorial in Washington. His service continued through the completion of the memorial in 2004. Included in his collection of memorabilia is a shovel from the groundbreaking and a photograph of the dedication. In the ceremony, he was seated next to actor Tom Hanks, who spearheaded the national fundraising campaign.
When I first visited Pete Wheeler, I mentioned the picture with Hanks.
“I think I have his phone number,” he said, with a big grin.
Mixed among his many accolades was an assortment of Coca-Cola mementos. He was loyal to the hometown brand.
But the most interesting part of the tour of Pete Wheeler’s office was not in the office. It was in a locked supply room in a metal two-door cabinet.
It was a likeness of Adolph Hitler taken from a statue that was toppled during the fall of Berlin. It was about 3 feet high and 2 « feet wide. The bronze head of Hitler was very detailed, right down to his famous mustache.
In a wonderful display of irony, Wheeler kept the head covered with an old plastic bag from Rich’s department store. Hitler, who ordered the massacre of 6 million Jews, was now cloaked in the brand of a Jewish-owned department store. A little post-mortem justice for the fuhrer.
“Go ahead and kick him,” said Wheeler, offering us a chance for a little shot at the former dictator.
As the son of a World War II vet who was wounded by a few Nazi bullets, it was a moment I’ll never forget, just like I’ll never forget Pete Wheeler.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.