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updated: 1/16/2011 9:40 PM

Retiring Wheeler has nothing but golden memories from Pottawatomie

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  • For more than 31 years Jim Wheeler has been the PGA pro and manager at Pottawatomie Golf Course in St. Charles. He will retire in February.

       For more than 31 years Jim Wheeler has been the PGA pro and manager at Pottawatomie Golf Course in St. Charles. He will retire in February.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Jim Wheeler has organized the Salvation Army's "Toys for Kids" program for 24 years. Even though he's retiring as head golf pro at Pottawatomie Golf Course in St. Charles, he'll remain involved with the Salvation Army.

       Jim Wheeler has organized the Salvation Army's "Toys for Kids" program for 24 years. Even though he's retiring as head golf pro at Pottawatomie Golf Course in St. Charles, he'll remain involved with the Salvation Army.
    Christopher hankins | Staff Photographer, 2007

 
 

For Jim Wheeler, life has had its share of bad timing and good timing.

Bad timing in 1968 when, two months after graduating from Western Illinois University, he was drafted into the Army and found himself in the jungles of Vietnam a few months later.

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Good timing when he happened to work at Inverness Golf Club in Palatine in 1979, making him available to hear about and eventually be hired for the top position at Pottawatomie Golf Course in St. Charles in 1980.

Wheeler recently informed the St. Charles Park District Board that he would resign before the start of the 2011 golf season, making Feb. 28 his last day of a 31-year stint as golf course manager and head pro at Pottawatomie.

Wheeler, 65, views his stepping down as another case of good timing. With park district Executive Director James Breen, Parks Superintendent Dennis Ryan and business manager William Conner all retiring, Wheeler felt it was time to follow suit.

"They offer an 'early out' for longtime employees, and we were all eligible," Wheeler said. "I just decided it was time to do it. I am tired, and I would like more freedom, so it has come to be that time."

When taking the position that opened after Dennis Johnsen left for a similar role at Pheasant Run, Wheeler had no plans to make Pottawatomie his final work stop.

"I originally thought that this was a great position and a nice place to start, and then after about three years I could move onto an 18-hole facility and be able to do a bunch of things," Wheeler recalls.

"However, as time passed, everything started to feel very comfortable for me and my family, especially with my young daughters in school. It became that I never wanted to leave the area because I had met so many nice people and it was just a wonderful place to raise a family."

Feeling is mutual

That turned out to be good news for those who played the nine-hole Pottawatomie course, as it did not take long for Wheeler to initiate tournaments for all age groups and expand the ladies league.

By expanding the men's, women's, seniors, junior and Little Guys and Gals tournaments, Wheeler felt he was being true to his job's calling by having "a program for anyone to participate in."

Pottawatomie golfers weren't the only community members to benefit from Wheeler deciding to stay in St. Charles. He has spent 27 years as the head of the Salvation Army's "Toys for Kids" holiday program, while also serving on the organization's board.

"When I was growing up, Salvation Army had a Biddy Basketball program and I played in that and even went to a national tournament one time," Wheeler said. "I will always have that remembrance of what Salvation Army provided for me when I was little, plus I know that it is a great organization."

Wheeler said his commitment to the toys program won't go away.

"I'm still here and the kids are still here," Wheeler said.

Wheeler doesn't plan on disappearing from the golf landscape just because he won't be in charge at Pottawatomie.

"I still want to provide golf lessons, but have to find a place to do that," Wheeler said. "I will always keep an eye on the golf programs at the high schools, and I may actually start to play again, which is something I never made time for."

The early years

His two-year stint in the Army derailed Wheeler's professional plans for a few years, but golf wasn't high on his radar when he got out of the service in 1970.

"I had a teaching degree and wanted to be a teacher," said Wheeler, who became a fifth-grade teacher in his hometown of Peoria for three years, while working at the city's golf courses during summers.

After working in various capacities at five Peoria courses, Wheeler took a shot at the golf business when an opportunity arose.

"I kept the teaching certificate, just in case, but never had to make use of it," he said.

Conflicts between the Peoria Park District and golf management organizations caused plenty of problems for those in the golf business in that city in the late 1970s, Wheeler explained, and it forced him to relocate with his young family and take a job at Inverness -- and be nearby when the Pottawatomie job opened.

"I can sit back and reminisce about all of the interesting people I have met at Pottawatomie," Wheeler said. "And it just comes down to the various age groups, with fellows like Woody Burnell, Garney Mabrey and Chuck Allen in the seniors group, and then Jon Walker and Ralph Johnston Jr. in the junior level ... and it can just go on and on."

Wheeler said he enjoyed watching a youngster in the Little Guys and Gals event work his or her way up to playing at the high school or collegiate level, and then enjoying success in the city tournaments.

"I think I will mostly remember the tournaments and the excitement that people had in playing in those events," Wheeler said.

Friends and colleagues will gather at the Pottawatomie Community Center Feb. 17 for an open house and farewell party for Wheeler.

"I'm not going to disappear," Wheeler said. "I'll still be around."

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