We lose people every day. It’s the natural cycle of life. Many pass without noticing. Though as William Faulkner once said to a young Shelby Foote while the two were walking though a cemetery, “There’s a story behind each of these stones.”
One of the greatest stories now lies behind a new stone. That is the story of Dr. Milton Wheeler.
A casual browse through the local newspaper’s obituary section would tell the story of an accomplished history professor who finished his undergrad history work at William Carey College in Hattiesburg and his M.A. and PhD in history at Tulane, a further read would let you know he returned to his alma mater in Hattiesburg and taught for over 50 years. I was fortunate enough to have been one of his students.
Over the course of his career— armed with nothing more than a humble history professor’s salary— he donated over $2 million dollars to the university he loved and served. He never missed a William Carey baseball game for several decades. Not one. The same goes for basketball and quite a few other sports.
He led over 100 tours to Europe in a 30-year period. He was a devout Rotarian with perfect attendance for over 40 years who spent a lot of time in the leadership of that organization traveling the world.
The story of Milton Wheeler is not just a travelogue or a tale of a beloved professor, philanthropist, sports fanatic, or civic-minded leader. The story of Milton Wheeler is a passion-filled love story in the truest sense.
Milton Wheeler was passionate in all endeavors and loved life. There were many passions in his life and he dedicated his time, resources, and love to all of them.
First and foremost, Dr. Wheeler loved the Lord. He was as devout and steadfast as any man I have ever known. He researched and discussed biblical studies as if it were his unending doctoral thesis, and for over 27 years hosted the longest-running local television show “Living Waters,” which focused on biblical history.
The love story continues. Milton Wheeler was more devoted and in love with his wife than any man I have known. She passed away four months ago, and most who knew Milton knew that he wouldn’t be too far behind. But during her lengthy illness he was constantly by her side. The love letter correspondence I have archived in email format is a testament to true love that should stand for the ages and be required reading for anyone who intends to be married. No one should ever settle for anything less than the love those two shared.
Wheeler loved travel. He not only led trips through Europe, but dozens of others to the Holy Land, Australia and the Orient. It was his passion.
That is where my story intersects with his, at least outside of the classroom. As I began to plan an extended trip to Europe several years ago, I knew I needed help. This C-student turned to his former history professor for much needed advice. For the next six months we spent every Wednesday lunch over a bowl of gumbo, travel maps, and his bounteous journals. Those lunches were some of the most informative meals of my life. The recall Dr. Wheeler had of places and locations across the European continent was mind-boggling. I would research a remote locale all week and then come to our scheduled lunch prepared to ask him about a specific town in an out of the way area in a lightly travelled country. “I’m thinking about a stopover here,” I’d say.
“Oh, that’s a fine little village,” he’d say. “And make sure to stay at the tiny hotel by the square, there’s an excellent restaurant two doors down, and if you’re there on a Wednesday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. you can walk across the street to the cathedral and hear the children’s choir practicing.”
With a slight fist brush to the chin and his trademark “Ha!” he would continue to give a detailed story about every place I wanted to visit.
Once, while driving through Greece, the GPS took an alternate route. I called Dr. Wheeler back in the States and— without being able to see the road— he guided me through the remote Greek countryside in a much more efficient, and scenic route, than the GPS had planned for us. We arrived at our destination ahead of the GPS schedule.
Another time I was in Rome and Skyped Dr. Wheeler on my iPad. Using his computer, he walked me through the streets guiding my family, “Turn right here. You see that café to the left” Turn left there and go three blocks.”
It was a life filled with love and passion. It’s an example for us all. Through physical trials and emotional adversity in the end, he kept his indomitable and exuberant spirit alive. His passion always shown through— passion for his church, passion for his true love Donna, passion for history, his career, sports, Rotary and travel.
Milton Wheeler was always a glass-half-full kind of guy. Though no matter what the circumstance, his glass was never just half full, it was always completely full with enough to share. It’s a lesson for all of us: Live life with love and passion in everything you do. Throw the inconsequential things that don’t matter to the side. Focus on the important things. Live a life filled with love and passion.
So long, my friend. Travel well.