Jim Wheeler never intended to spend more than 30 years as the golf pro at St. Charles' Pottawatomie Golf Course. He never even intended to be a golf mentor.
But he loved to teach, mentor and control his own destiny. And that's what he spent his life doing while becoming one of the most recognized and beloved faces in the local athletic community.
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Wheeler, who had a history of heart problems, died at his home in St. Charles Tuesday evening. He was 68.
Wheeler grew up in Peoria. His first love was baseball. He didn't pick up a golf club until he attended a golf camp in Lake Geneva with his parents as a teenager. The game came naturally to him, but he didn't consider it as a doorway to a career.
He attended Western Illinois University with plans to become a teacher in Peoria. Instead, he was drafted into the Army and spent a year in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart in the process.
Coming home, he worked three years as a gym teacher in Peoria. During the summer he worked at various golf courses there, learning the business. It was only when he had some seasoning under his belt that he began to consider a career in golf.
He became an assistant pro at Newman Golf Course in Peoria. It was the first of a string of golf jobs that led him to St. Charles in 1980 and the job at Pottawatomie he held for 31 years.
"I expected to come here, work three to five years, then move on to an 18-hole facility with a driving range and the ability to make more money," Wheeler told the Daily Herald upon his retirement in 2011.
But he never left because, "I had the ability to run a golf facility. The park district gave me a chance to do what I thought was best."
That's the same policy he required of his students when teaching them the intricacies of the game. Wheeler would often teach groups of up to 10 students at a time in a job he spent up to 14 hours at seven days a week.
"He was an awesome teacher," said former student Kim Malay.
"I remember he started class by saying, 'I know that you all have live-in coaches at home, but don't listen to them, and tell them I said so,'" Malay recalled. "I thought that was funny because he knew my husband and had seen me golf with him before.
"He actually called him over and told him, 'She's not going to listen to you. I just want you to know this now.'"
Wheeler became the only golf voice Malay trusted.
"One time I was golfing in North Carolina, and I got myself in such a bad place that I called him," Malay said. "I told him, 'I'm looking at the ocean, and I'm ready to throw my clubs in.' And he was just able to calm me down and remind me of the basics."
Off the course, Wheeler is remembered as a huge booster for golf at both St. Charles high schools and his involvement with the Toys for Kids program at the Tri-City branch of The Salavation Army for almost as many years as he spent at the golf course.
"This news has hit hard with many staff and park board members that had the privilege to get to know Jim over the span of many years through working at the park district," said Holly Cabel, the park district's director of parks and recreation. "As much as Jim had a passion for golf, he reached out to much more of this community than just golfers. He was an extremely generous man. His support for the St. Charles community will be deeply missed."
Wheeler is survived by his wife, Patti, and his daughters Amy and Kim. Visitation is from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, at Yurs Funeral Home in St. Charles. Hosanna! Lutheran Church in St. Charles will host a memorial service at 1 p.m., Monday. Burial is private. In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to Hosanna! Lutheran Church or the Toys for Kids program at the Tri-City Salvation Army.