Remembering Richard Wheeler: A look at the Onset icon’s life
(Editor’s note: For comments from some who knew Wheeler and his work, see testimonials below the story.)
Richard Wheeler, a champion of the environment whose famed kayak trip down coastal Canada and New England brought attention to the extinct great auk – and whose dedication to Wareham only strengthened in his later years – died on Jan. 31. He was 88.
The Onset resident’s fervor for the natural world attracted national acclaim.
He was best known for his 1991 trip from Newfoundland to Buzzards Bay to raise awareness about extinction. His 1,500-mile journey followed the migratory path of the great auk, a bird humans drove to extinction in the 1800s.
The trip took 130 days to complete and was documented in “Haunted Cry of a Long Gone Bird” for the PBS series NOVA.
For his efforts, Wheeler was named a “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine in 1998. But he never stopped advocating for the planet or his town.
His mark on Wareham is indelible.
Wheeler’s love for the water was well known. His kayak trips (continuing into his 80s) fueled fundraisers for the Wareham Free Library.
A cause dear to him and his wife Sandra Wheeler, he once described the library as “Wareham’s shining light.”
When the library’s budget was severely cut after an override vote failed in 2008, Wheeler kayaked 20 miles a day from Oct. 11 to Dec. 13 during a personal “paddlethon.”
He was greeted on beaches and docks throughout the fundraiser. At the end of the journey, Wheeler wrote: “I am resolved that the only way the Town of Wareham can ‘get into a better place’ is through strengthened education.”
Nora Bicki, a member of the Friends of the Wareham Free Library, remembered him fondly.
“No memorial would be complete without mentioning Dick Wheeler’s support of the Wareham Free Library,” she said.
“Although he supported the library throughout his time in Wareham, he is especially appreciated for his 1000-mile kayak Paddlethon to raise money for the library after its budget was slashed in half.
“The Wareham Library community, staff, Library Friends and Foundation, patrons and supporters will always remember him with love and admiration.”
A friend of the Wareham Land Trust, Wheeler also worked to protect the town’s wildlife through ways both conventional and courageous.
In 2010, Wheeler stumbled upon a 1-1/2 year-old female bald eagle in distress. Wheeler, who had once rehabilitated a hawk, threw his vest over the raptor and carried it home where he called authorities.
But the bird stabbed Wheeler in the hand with its inch-and-a-half long talons. Wheeler was treated at Tobey Hospital and took the rescue in stride.
“I never got to hug an eagle until I turned 80!” Wheeler told Wareham Week at the time. “It was worth the wait.”
That same year, the Buzzards Bay Coalition honored Wheeler by naming a learning center after him. The New Bedford-based nonprofit is dedicated to protection, restoration and sustainable use of the bay.
The Richard C. Wheeler Bay Learning Center opened in the Buzzards Bay Center, the Coalition’s then new New Bedford headquarters.
In addition to informing and educating the public about the bay, the learning center tells the story of Wheeler’s 4-month journey from Newfoundland to Buzzards Bay.
Coalition President Mark Rasmussen said Wheeler was often a participant in the nonprofit’s long-running, annual Buzzards Bay Swim – one the group’s major fundraisers. More importantly, Rasmussen said Wheeler’s passion for education was inspiring.
“Educating and connecting kids to the natural world was immediately urgent to him and that mission is a thread that runs through his entire life,” said Rasmussen. “It was both work that could never be completed and was never more important.”
In his later years, Wheeler’s vigor kept him in the local spotlight.
In 2011, Wheeler competed in a 1.2-mile swim across Buzzards Bay, circumnavigated Cape Ann in a 20-mile kayak trip and paddled 12 miles from downtown Wareham to Bird Island in Marion.
In September of that same year, he competed in the Waikiki Roughwater Challenge in Hawaii, a 2.3-mile swim.
Out of the water, Wheeler could be found in Wareham’s Community Garden where he also left his mark.
In 2010, he discovered nesting painted turtles. Wheeler alerted a local turtle authority and then helped install fencing to protect the reptiles.
News of Wheeler’s death rippled through the community, prompting many to reflect on his life.
“Richard was a great teacher. Among his many skills and contributions he excited and motivated his listeners with his knowledge and enthusiasm,” said Sherbie Worthen, a Boys & Club volunteer who brought Wheeler in for educational programs. “He knew that when we love the natural world we will protect it.”
Wareham Harbormaster Garry Buckminster summed up the town’s mood in the wake of Wheeler’s death.
“I truly admired Mr. Wheeler,” said Buckminster. “His passing is a difficult loss for our community.”
A memorial service has not been announced as of this publication.
Words on Wheeler
After Wheeler’s passing, Wareham Week reached out to those who knew him. Below are some of their comments.
“For all of his accomplishments, Dick’s deep commitment to engaging the next generation in environmental issues stands out to me the most. Educating and connecting kids to the natural world was immediately urgent to him and that mission is a thread that runs through his entire life. It was both work that could never be completed and was never more important. Dick felt that every child needed to know and love the animals of the ocean and the trees of the forest as he did, for only in that could we ever hope for a more sustainable future. And he was a great teacher. Children and adults were just drawn to him with his warm smile, his engaging eyes and this wonderful earnestness that came through in everything he said.
Dick’s preferred approach was to led by example more than by talking though. He stepped into the waters of New Bedford Harbor in our now 25-year old Buzzards Bay Swim to help sound the alarm for clean water in Buzzards Bay and he paddled all of those miles to Newfoundland to raise awareness of the threats of overfishing. It was this kind of inspired personal action that made people want to hear what he was saying.”
I always felt honored to be in Dick Wheeler’s presence and to learn from him. I was always so happy to report to him about how our plans to create an Onset Bay Center were coming together. From his porch he looked out on the Wickets Island and Burgess Point lands that we have now preserved forever, and in more recent days, he got to see the beginning of our transformation of the Bathhouse into a center dedicated to what was always so important to him – connecting new generations of kids to the magical environment right in their own backyard.”
- Mark Rasmussen, President, Buzzards Bay Coalition
“Dick Wheeler was one of Gleason Family’s YMCA original Steering Committee Members. He was a long time board member and was instrumental in its’ fundraising efforts. Dick used his passion for kayaking as a way to raise awareness about the environment and to help raise funds for the Gleason Family YMCA’s Bird Island Challenge. This was a kayaking event that went from the Narrows in Wareham to Bird Island in Marion harbor, a 12 mile course.
The first Bird Island Challenge was held Sunday, August 3, 2003. Dick was instrumental in organizing this event from the beginning. He not only helped organize the event, he would participate each year. The last Bird Island Challenge event was held in 2014.”
- Kim Hall, Office Coordinator, Gleason Family YMCA
“I knew of Dick before I knew him so the bird thing is what keeps coming to mind. In the 90s, I watched “The Haunted Cry of a Long Gone Bird” on a big screen at Marc Anthony’s sitting behind a slew of Onset kids (who now are hmm, 30-ish?). We shared the-world’s-best-pizza and learned about a no-longer bird and our precious/precarious fishing stocks, oceans and planet while being mesmerized by this guy who kayaked from Nova Scotia to the Cape Cod canal. My eyes were opened that night and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one there who walked out a little changed. Next encounter was a reception at Sandra and Dick’s home where a fireplace in the living room had been repurposed--rigged with warming lights and turned into a duckling nursery.
Our paths grew closer and for a number of years, we worked as part of a great committee to put on The Bird Island Challenge, which, was pretty much designed for Dick: a physically challenging kayak race through some of the most beautiful waters on earth to benefit a larger cause (in this case the Gleason YMCA). And, then, the guinea hens: the official Wheeler household greeters on Indian Neck (and purveyors of perfect multicolored eggs), these ladies were on hand for countless community meetings and memorable gatherings hosted by Dick and Sandra for people who loved and cared about Wareham. The Wheeler contribution to the Wareham Land Trust annual meeting and Viking cruise? Every year, a boatload of chicken wings (okay, I’m pushing the bird thing here). And, of course, the bald eagle rescue on Onset beach. How lucky I am to have shared a world, a town and for a time, a neighborhood with this kind and generous “hero of the planet,” a beloved friend.”
- Martha Maguire
“I knew Dick as an impassioned environmental advocate, and indeed my first real foray into local politics occurred in partnership with him and Bob Brady, as we sought to prevent beach land acquired at Swifts Beach with public money from being turned into an inaccessible wildlife preserve. But my funniest moment with Dick was at the Gleason Family YMCA pool. I fancied myself a decent swimmer, until the day I shared a lane with Dick...and nearly drowned in his wake as this 80 year old guy outpaced me about three to one! Only later did I learn that he was on the swim team at Harvard. Godspeed Dick, you were a helluva guy.”
- Peter Teitelbaum, Board of Selectmen
“No memorial would be complete without mentioning Dick Wheeler’s support of the Wareham Free Library. Although he supported the Library throughout his time in Wareham, he is especially appreciated for his 1000 mile kayak Paddlethon to raise money for the Library after its budget was slashed in half, causing reduced hours and services, decertification, and layoffs of staff.
This was a low point for the Library; and the 78 year old Wheeler, who in his own words described the Library as “Wareham’s shining light,” stepped forward to paddle the waters of Wareham from October 11 to December 13, 2008. His goal was to paddle 20 miles a day, and as anyone knows at that time of the year, the waters can be choppy and the winds high and biting. Yet he accomplished his goal and tracked his journey with a GPS, personal journal, and photographs. (www.warehampaddle.wordpress.com)
On October 11, he kicked off his Paddlethon at the Besse Park Pier with a group of donors and supporters signing his kayak, that Wheeler named after his friend, the former Library Director Mary Jane Pillsbury, who passed away the week before. His journal is a compendium of what Dick loved best, the wonders of nature. His descriptions of the many varieties of birds, our beaches, the trees, and even a river otter are worthy of publication. During his trip, he was met on local beaches and docks by patrons and supporters who cheered him on. In addition, he spoke about his trip in our school classrooms and at the Library.
At the end of his journey he wrote, “I am resolved that the only way the Town of Wareham can “get into a better place” is through strengthened education. I have appreciated the support of people who share that goal, and my wish is that people treat my paddle effort as a symbol of what can be accomplished by people who won’t give up and who join forces with other people who won’t give up. Reaching the 1,000-mile goal is not an end: it’s a symbol of what people can do when they set their minds to the task. You define your goal, you divide it into “do-able” chunks, and you just hunker down and do what needs to be done to stay on track.” This was the essence of Mr. Richard C. Wheeler.
The Wareham Library community, staff, Library Friends and Foundation, patrons and supporters will always remember him with love and admiration.”
- Nora Bicki