Friday, March 09, 2012

A tragic death and an enduring legacy

Mickey Wheeler's entry in the 1932 Chariton High School yearbook. Who knows the reasoning behind the quote? Snarkiness on the part of yearbook editors? Whatever the case, I identify with it.

Mickey Wheeler died a long time ago now --- and way too young. But what was written of him in his obituary more than 60 years ago --- "He was a leader of a group of boys and can never be forgotten because of the great contribution he made to their lives" --- has proved to be true.

I would have known nothing about Mickey if it hadn't been for my honorary cousin Richard Fox, who grew up in Chariton during the 1930s but now lives in California. He remembers Mickey, whose given name was Robert Eugene.

Early this week, Richard wrote: "Across the alley from my home (north of the 600 block of Armory Avenue), lived a family named Wheeler who had a son named Mickey. The son was a boxer, a title contender for the World Championship in one of the light weight catagories. He had a magnificent physique.

"I had a little gym in my basement where some of the kids worked out with me. Mickey would come over and box with me, giving me tips on how to defend myself. He was a very friendly man, in his early twenties.

"I have often thought of him and his kindnesses to me and wonder if anyone has a record of his skill in the boxing arena."

Richard was unsure of the details concerning the boxing career --- Mickey was a modest man and didn't talk about it himself. It was something Richard heard about later, probably after Mickey's death in 1938. And I was unable to provide the answers --- they may well be recorded in old issues of the Chariton newspapers but to find out would require hours of time behind a microfilm reader.

There are a couple of hints, however. One involves his work as a youth leader at Chariton's First Christian Church (then located in what now is the parking lot of Pierschbacher Funeral Home just north of the square). It was this work that the line in his obituary referred to. I'd  be willing to bet that his work with the boys involved boxing.

And then there's the fact that Mickey, born in 1910, did not graduate from Chariton High School until 1932, when he was 22. While it was not unusual for young men and women to drop out of school, moreso then because of economic pressures related to the Great Depression, it was unusual, however, to come back and graduate with students four years younger. This almost suggests that Mickey was otherwise occupied, perhaps with  amateur boxing, during at least part of the time he otherwise would have been in school.

It may be that someone else will remember Mickey and be able to add more, but for the time being I'm stalled when it comes to his boxing career.

There is considerably more information, however, about the tragedy that claimed both his life and that of his father three days apart in November of 1938.

Mickey was born in Chariton on Sept. 8, 1910, one of four children of William E. Wheeler, a coal miner, and his wife, Olive (Watts) Wheeler. The other children were Pauline, Katherine and Billy. Five years after earning his high school diploma, during 1937, Mickey married Lena M. Baker, a Russell girl then living in Cheney, Washington, at the Baptist parsonage in Chariton.

During the fall of 1938, both Mickey and his father became critically ill with tularemia, or "rabbit fever," a dreadful plague-like disease caused by bacteria most commonly carried by "reservoir hosts," mostly rodents, most commonly rabbits. First detected in the United States during 1912, the 1938 outbreak was Lucas County's first and several were infected.

Mickey and Will Wheeler contracted the disease when their bare hands came into contact with the skins of rabbits they were cleaning after a hunting expedition. Although a serum was available to treat the disease with varying results, the Chariton newspapers reported that it was difficult to obtain because of the unexpected outbreak of a relatively new disease and the number of cases across Iowa.

Mickey died at his parents' home on Monday, Nov. 21, 1938, as his father lay critically ill nearby. Will died three days later, during the early morning of Nov. 24, 1938. Mickey's funeral was held at First Christian Church on Wednesday afternoon; Will's, at the same location on Friday afternoon. Both were buried in the Chariton Cemetery, Will at Mickey's feet.

As the years passed, the other three Wheeler children moved away from Chariton. Olive continued to live here until her death during 1963 while visiting a daughter and she is buried with her husband and son. I don't know what became of Lena --- the spot provided for her burial next to Mickey appears to be unoccupied.  Most likely, she remarried.

According to The Chariton Leader of Nov. 22, 1938, six cases of tularemia had been reported since the opening of rabbit hunting season in Lucas County by the time the Wheelers died. One was James Berry, 14, who was recovering. Another was Mrs. Eva Shane, of Lucas, then recovering at Yocum Hospital. The other victims were not named.

Although my dad never mentioned any of these victims by name, the outbreak was something he talked about --- when explaining why he would never touch, let alone eat, a rabbit, wild or domestic.


Dominion said...

My name is Diana. Robert Wheeler was my Great Uncle. Pauline Wheeler was my grandmother (Mickey's sister. Olive, who we called "granny" died while visiting us here in Milwaukee, I was 5 years old at the time & vividly remember her passing away in the living room. I never met Uncle Robert or grandpa Wheeler, as they both passed 20 years before I was born. The stories Pauline & Aunt Kathryn told were priceless !! The sadness in their eyes remained a lifetime. There was a picture of both men in our home my entire life. They seemed larger than life to me. Pauline & my mom Joanne, moved to Milwaukee, Billy, who was a year older than my mom was her uncle, but they were more like brother & sister, moved to Denver & had 3 children. Kathryn (Kate) married William Kapler & moved to Long Beach, CA, they didn't have children & always considered my mom as their daughter. Pauline Wheeler-Whitford died September 1st !991 & is Buried at Valhalla Cemetery in Milwaukee,WI. Joanne Wheeler-Caldwell died August 11th 2004 & is buried next to Pauline at Valhalla Cemetery in Milwaukee,WI.
Billy Wheeler died of Leukemia. He served in the Marine Corps during the Korean war. Kathryn Wheeler died in 2003. I want to thank you so much for posting this blog, i am very emotional at the moment. I was researching the family and happened across this beautiful tribute. i felt as if everyone i loved & lost was in the room with me tonight. These were such fun, fabulous people...i always felt so loved. I was very close to both my grand & great grandmother's. I loved when Kate would visit every year, & yes...they were all quite snarky !! so am I. thank you again for a beautiful tribute.

Dominion said...

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