This is a story I never imagined writing.
When I first heard the news earlier this week that longtime Pottawatomie Golf Course professional Jim Wheeler had passed away suddenly at the age of 68 on Tuesday, a number of things entered my mind.
First and foremost, heartfelt sympathy for his wife, Patti, daughters Amy and Kimberly, 5 grandchildren and the rest of his immediate family.
Then, empathy for the entire St. Charles community.
Young or old, man or woman, golfer or not -- it is a loss shared by all.
"Jim has been a part of my life for a long time," said St. Charles North boys golf coach Rob Prentiss. "He has been in my life through so many stages -- as a mentor, boss, parent, coach and friend.
"He encouraged me to become a PGA club professional but I wanted to get into education."
Whether it was hosting a number of annual tournaments -- Little Guys & Gals, Junior, Senior, Women's and Men's -- or confirming tee times with prospective players, Wheeler's friendly face was one of the first that greeted you upon entering the pro shop.
"He was a great ambassador for golf in the St. Charles community for people of all ages," said St. Charles East girls golf coach Rod Osborne. "It covered all ages and ability levels."
Like Prentiss, Osborne formed a long-standing relationship with Wheeler.
"I've known him for more than 30 years," said Osborne, who has guided the Saints' girls golf team for 23 seasons. "I remember when he came on (at Pottawatomie) in 1979.
"Jim was just a great person to work with as a coach," added Osborne. "He would try and do as much as he could to work with us. He made you feel like he wanted you down there and he had an open mind for whatever we wanted to get done."
Pottawatomie assistant professional Bill Ogiego, who spent 9 years working alongside Wheeler, echoed similar sentiments.
"I've known Jim since the day he was here in his first year," said Ogiego. "I knew him as a youth golfer, as a high school golfer, as a (St. Charles) Park District colleague. He hired me as an assistant. He has been a teacher, mentor and friend to me."
Wheeler, an avid Cardinals fan growing up in Peoria, also was one of the biggest followers of both St. Charles East and St. Charles North athletic programs.
"One word that comes to my mind is supportive," said St. Charles East boys golf coach John Stock. "During my 20 years -- 6 at St. Charles and 14 at St. Charles East -- Jim was always very supportive of our players, the program, me and the kids in general. He helped with tryouts and matches and came to our banquets. He'd come down to the state tournament when we were down there as a team. He was our biggest cheerleader."
I first met Wheeler when I moved to St. Charles in 1988 and quickly learned of his quick wit, dry humor and affable personality after playing one of my first rounds of golf at Pottawatomie.
He could dish out his share of sarcasm but always in a fun-loving way -- never mean-spirited.
"I wish I had the words to describe him," said St. Charles North basketball coach Tom Poulin. "He was just a great guy.
"As a kid, everyone knew Mr. Wheeler," added Poulin. "From the first time I talked to him, it was like you were talking to your best friend."
During basketball season, you pretty much knew of Wheeler's whereabouts -- in the gym at either St. Charles East or St. Charles North.
"Our family got to know him really well the past few years," said Poulin. "My mom loved spending time sitting next to him in the stands. He always had a calming influence on me. He'd be one of the first people to console me walking off the court after a tough loss. It helped give me a better perspective on things.
"He was a wonderful representative of the community -- as classy as it gets."
Often putting in 14- and 15-hour days during the peak season, Wheeler was one of the biggest reasons behind Pottawatomie's national recognition -- it ranked as the 15th best 9-hole golf course in America by Golf World magazine.
"He worked hard all of those years," said Prentiss. "A place like Pottawatomie is so unique. After a while, it gets in your soul. Jim was a big part of that."
Simply put, Wheeler was a man of the people.
"Think of all the lives he has touched," said Prentiss. "He was a community treasure. He was the man. I just feel blessed to have been around him."
"He lived the life he wanted to live and the way he wanted to live it," said Ogiego. "He adored his wife, kids and grandchildren and lived life to the fullest."
On a personal level, I've thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to sit next to him alongside Kevin Harrington, Mike Zernone and Prentiss in an entertaining press box throughout the years at North Stars football games -- where all shared laughs and great times.
"We had a blast," said Prentiss.
It certainly won't feel quite the same come next August.
"Always a smile, always a kind word," said Prentiss. "He will long be remembered."
While I suggest a statue or some sort of permanent marker placed in Wheeler's memory on the grounds at Pottawatomie in the near future, the shock of his passing will take some time to sink in.
"It's a sad time on so many levels," added Prentiss. "I still can't believe it."
"He's one of those guys that you can't replace," said Stock.
"Certainly he'll be remembered by myself and a lot of others," said Osborne. "It's sad to lose him this early."
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org