A public memorial for Wheeler, who was also a well-known local musician, will be held at the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts in Eugene on Sunday, Feb. 25, at 11 a.m. The journalism school will host a campus memorial for Wheeler in Allen Hall during spring term.
“Tom was a wonderful, kind-hearted colleague and senior leader in the SOJC,” said H. Leslie Steeves, the school’s associate dean of academic affairs and a longtime friend of Wheeler. “He was a stellar and generous teacher with a special passion for the nuances of grammar and writing. He was a world-renowned scholar of the guitar, music and musicians, and he would regale friends and students with amazing firsthand stories of music legends, laced with humor and poignancy. His passing is a huge and heartbreaking loss.”
Wheeler was an award-winning music journalist and guitar historian. He served as editor of Guitar Player magazine from 1981 to 1991 and founded Bass Player magazine. He authored eight books about guitars, including the award-winning “The Stratocaster Chronicles” and “The Dream Factory: Fender Custom Shop,” as well as a textbook on the ethics of media imagery.
Over the course of his career, Wheeler interviewed many music greats, including Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Les Paul, Leo Fender and Keith Richards. Clapton, Richards and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons all wrote forewords for Wheeler’s books.
Wheeler joined the UO faculty in 1991. In addition to teaching classes in feature writing, magazine editing and grammar, he co-founded the student-run magazine Flux in 1992.
“Tom and professor Bill Ryan decided that students needed a hands-on publishing experience, so they imagined a student magazine and then made it a reality. Now, many years and awards later, Flux is an integral part of the SOJC student experience,” said journalism professor Tim Gleason. “Tom was an inspiring teacher who engaged students with his knowledge and his passion for magazines, the written word and good stories. He was a great colleague who was always willing to do whatever was needed to enhance the student experience and advance the SOJC.”
Juan-Carlos Molleda, Edwin L. Artzt Dean and professor in the journalism and communication school, announced the news of Wheeler’s death to the school community over email Feb. 11. Since then, students, faculty and alumni of the school have expressed their grief and posted remembrances on social media.
“In the mere year that I knew Tom, we had wonderful, thought-provoking conversations about religion, literature and the craft of writing in his office or over coffee,” reads a Twitter post from Francesca Fontana, a former student of Wheeler’s who graduated from the journalism school in 2017. “Even from across the country, Tom was generous and kind enough to keep in touch, read my work and send lengthy emails with his thoughts. ... This was what made Tom truly remarkable: he took each and every one of us seriously, taking the time and energy to cultivate our unique perspectives as journalists, as writers. ... He was a joy to learn from, and you got the sense he was equally happy to learn from you as well.”
Deborah Morrison, the school’s Carolyn Silva Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising, paid tribute to Wheeler’s skill as a teacher and a storyteller by sharing an excerpt from her evaluation of one of his recent courses.
“I report without hyperbole: that hour was magical,” she wrote in an email. “He showed his passion for great performance by shutting his eyes and listening with great pleasure. … Wheeler brought nuance, a critical ear, even performed ‘air guitar’ for some of the pieces. … As I looked around the room at students, they were as enraptured as I was. As we took a break, one student I didn’t know leaned over and said, ‘Holy crap, that was amazing.’”
Wheeler’s colleagues expressed both admiration for his work and appreciation for his approachable demeanor.
“In my 30-plus years at the SOJC, I have never had a friendlier or more positive colleague than Tom Wheeler,” said Tom Bivins, the school’s John L. Hulteng Chair for Media Ethics and Responsibility. “No matter how busy he was, he always made time for you, helped with your burden or took it on himself.”
Molleda said Wheeler’s disposition helped put students at ease, establishing a connection that let him help develop their skills as learners and professional writers.
“He also cared about his colleagues and handled all service with dedication and grace,” Molleda said. “His active presence will be greatly missed.”
Peter Laufer, James Wallace Chair and Professor in Journalism, called Wheeler the conscience of the school.
“He never stopped reminding us, as we dealt with the necessary day-to-day minutia, of our larger common goals: preparing the next generation of journalists and communicators to perform their crucial roles while we, the faculty, engage in the research and professional work that helps keep our fields vibrant and relevant,” Laufer said. “It is extraordinarily difficult to imagine Allen Hall without his warmth and relentless attention to students’ grammar. I miss my friend.”
—By Andra Brichacek, School of Journalism and Communication