I didn’t know Dick Wheeler well, but I was as fond of him as people who did. The creator of the Wheeler Report, the single most authoritative source of state Capitol reporting, was the kind of guy people looked to first with respect, then with admiration, and finally with a smile on their face.
Dick Wheeler, who died at his home this morning at age 67, knew the state Legislature better than the state Legislature. He was amused by it, annoyed by it, at times enraged by it. But he was as devoted to it as anyone ever elected to serve in its ranks.
As a reporter in Madison, where I worked at Isthmus newspaper for 25 years, I knew Wheeler mostly by reputation. It was only in the last year that I got to know him personally.
In part that was because of what I call the Walker Eruptions, which drew me to the Capitol on a daily basis this spring. Dick had by this time relinquished his role as president of the Capitol Correspondents Association, but he continued to assist dispensing press passes to people like me with a sudden need for access to the institutions of state government.
More than once, I ran into Dick outside the Capitol, at the media entrance, where he was handing out daily press passes. Getting into the building to obtain these became increasingly difficult, and he stationed himself there as a convenience to reporters like me.
Often I would ask him questions about the unfolding events. On Feb. 28, when I needed to call a legislative staffer to come down to the first floor to escort me to the press room to get my daily pass, I asked Dick if it was true that the Legislature cannot legally conduct business if the building is closed to the public.
He not only confirmed this, he cited the exact section of the state Constitution: Article 4, Section 10: “The doors of each house shall be kept open except when the public welfare shall require secrecy.”
In June, when I began working for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, I started coming to the state Capitol press room at least one day a week. I sat on the other side of a desk from Dick Wheeler. That’s where I’m sitting now, as I type these words.
The press room is devastated this morning. Tears have been shed. Wheeler’s daughter Gwyn Guenther, who worked alongside him most days, is here to console and be consoled — and, of course, because there’s work to be done. The reporters asked her to say something about her dad for the stories they are sadly writing.
“My dad always said two things about his job,” Gwyn said. “He loved what he was doing so he never worked a day in his life. And the day he stopped enjoying coming to work he would stop coming.”
Dick Wheeler was proud of Gwyn. I always felt that. He was proud of her daughters Camille and Tabitha, his grandchildren, who sometimes came by. And, I know this is a strange thing to say, but it seems like the right words: The Capitol press corps was proud of Dick Wheeler.
Wheeler had covered state legislatures in Ohio and Michigan before coming to Wisconsin and launching The Wheeler Report in 1972. He was on the phone with a member of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family when word came of King’s assassination. He covered the shootings at Kent State.
The Wheeler Report covering the events of state government began as a mimeographed write-up that was mailed to subscribers daily. Later it was sent out by fax, then email, and, beginning in 1998, over the Internet.
Dick would start work before 6 a.m., compiling information on his website. He’d work all day through. His health was not perfect; he’d had a heart attack more than two decades ago and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure six years back. But he had as much drive as reporters half his age. He worked a full day yesterday, and was apparently getting ready for work this morning when he died.
One of the reporters in the press room just got off the phone with former Gov. Jim Doyle. “Doyle didn’t know your dad very well,” he announced. “He said he was warm and friendly.” Everybody laughed.
It’s strange to be here now, in a group of sad people writing stories about Dick. But I know he would have wanted that, for the telling of stories to go on, like life itself.