In Memoriam: W. Paul Wheeler 1942-2001

Dad and I sporting our new matching Huskies shirts!

Tonight would have been my dad's 70th birthday party.  This whole month I couldn't help wondering how my life would be different if he were still here for tonight's party.  Where I'd live, what I'd be doing, who I would or would not be married to.  How much would be different in the relationships just within our family?  Heck, even my theological and philosophical beliefs today may be different than they would be had he stayed around.  Dad's death almost certainly changed pretty much every aspect of my life in one way or another.  There are just a lot of things we can't know when we say we wish certain things in the past had turned out differently.  One thing I am absolutely certain would be the same in my life now as it would have been had dad stayed around?  I'd give anything to be attending that party tonight.

The strange thing about losing someone you love is that, contrary to popular belief, time heals very few wounds.  Today I don't miss him any less than I did this day in 2001.  The regrets I had about my time with him then are the same as they are now.  If anything I miss him worse and have more regrets today than I did 11 years ago.  Over time memories fade.  When memories fade we remember less of the good times.  When we remember less of the good times we fall under the impression that there were, in fact, less good times.  This engenders regret over not having created more good times.

But while there are plenty of regrets, there were undeniably plenty of good times.  This month I've really been trying my best to concentrate on those good times.  Well, actually more than "concentrate" on them, I've just been trying to remember them.  No one has ever accused me of having a good memory, so this has been a fairly difficult task.  I'm going to let you, my friends (and probably some family), in on some of my favorite memories of my dad 11 years, 7 months, and 1 day since his death.
To my knowledge, this is the last picture dad and I were in together

- Boxing.  One night at my house in Libby, some friends and I had gotten our hands on some boxing gloves.  I think we were probably 16 or 17 at this point.  Dad would have been 55 or 56.  Naturally, like any young, energetic, athletic whippersnapper, I figured there weren't many guys in their mid-late 50s on the planet that I couldn't handle.  So the inevitable challenge was made.  I think when we started, he didn't realize that I was serious, so he was pretty lackluster with his punches.  Then I popped him pretty good in the chops and his demeanor quickly changed.  All of a sudden I felt like Michael Spinks.  He, of course, was Mike Tyson.  The fight had started well, my confidence was up, and then came the flurry.  Nathan Wirt, who was in the kitchen...doing something, described the sounds he heard as "pop...pop, pop, pop...crash."  The "pops" were dad's gloves hitting my face.  The "crash" was me getting knocked backwards, out the door to my room, and knocking some stuff off the wall as I fell to the wall, then the floor, of our hallway.  Dad will forever be remembered by my brothers and me as a herculean super-human who was rarely beaten at anything ever by anyone...especially us.

- Gopher hunting.  Perhaps our favorite pastime in the hot Libby summer was using high powered rifles to blow up various small, nuisance creatures (in most cases, Colombian Ground Squirrels).  One night, dad told Nathan and I that he was going to take us gopher hunting in the morning.  Sounds great, right?  Yes.  But...we stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, so when dad came in to wake us up at 10:00 to go, we said thanks but no thanks.  We'd rather sleep.  This was unacceptable to dad, since he had specifically set aside this Saturday to spend time with me.  The crazy old man was so stubborn he actually made us get up at 10:00 in the morning!  The nerve!  Anyway, mom had packed us a lunch and we took off.  We had two .22-250s and a .243 and a lot...a whole lot...of ammo.  I don't really know what it was about this day, but I've never seen and/or killed as many gophers in one day as that day.  Those little suckers were everywhere.  We started shooting about mid-way between Libby and Kalispell and didn't stop until we made a complete loop and came back out on the north side of Libby.  Probably about 6 or 7 hours of shooting and at the very least 100 dead gophers.  That was probably the most fun I've ever had with dad in one day and I will forever be grateful to him for costing me my precious beauty sleep.

- The Screwball.  When I was probably 11 or 12 and we were living in Baker, I was always begging dad to play catch.  When dad was in high school, he was one of the best pitchers (if not the best pitcher) in the state of Washington.  His slider was dominant and he was offered an opportunity to play professionally for some minor league club when he was done with high school.  He turned the opportunity down because he felt called to the ministry.  So he went to a small Bible school without a baseball program instead.  Anyway, I knew dad was a high level pitcher thirty-some years ago and wanted to know what he still had in the tank.  I'd never seen a breaking ball in real life prior to this event.  I got him out in the church parking lot and told him to throw me some breaking ball.  I think he thought he was taking it easy on me by throwing a screwball, a pitch he didn't even use in-game back in the day, rather than one of his go-to pitches - a slider or a curve.  So I crouched down like a good little catcher and dad threw.  From the instant the ball left his hand it was making a sound I didn't know a baseball could make and have not heard since from any pitcher I've ever caught.  It was literally fizzing from the silly RPMs he was able to put on it.  Now that I know more about baseball I'd kill to see him pitch more.  It was a thing of beauty.  It had high velocity and very late, very hard, diving break.  I got so scared I jumped up and dove out of the way.  I shutter to think what his money pitches were like in his prime.  He had a game in high school where his starting catcher got injured and the backup had to catch him.  He had 20 strikeouts and over half of them reached base because his catcher was unable to catch the breakers.  This is the only experience I've ever had that makes me feel like I can gauge a little bit just how much greater professional baseball players are than anything I've ever been a part of.  If you gave me a bat and told me to try to hit that, I'd probably still be swinging.  And he was 30 years past his prime.

Look at that sexy beast
- Hunting.  Dad loved to hunt.  He instilled in me a love of hunting that I'll never lose even though I'm not able to hunt as often as I would like.  When I was a kid there were times he would be so kind as to keep me out of school for a day so we could go hunting together, even long before I was old enough to hunt myself.  When I had the chance to kill my first deer I was 10 (yes, two years before I was legal).  Dad let me use his tag and shoot the deer because he trusted me and knew I could do it.  Two years later, when I killed my first buck, dad surprised me by getting the rack mounted and engraved.  Every fall since his death, crisp fall air and colorful, falling leaves remind me of the hundreds of hours spent with dad every fall in the woods.  When he died I got the guns with which I shared the most memories of him.  Even long after those guns cease firing I will always keep them because they are the only mementos I have left from our days hunting together.

- Ping Pong.  Our family used to go to family camp in Hungry Horse, MT almost every year.  One year, when I was probably 10 or 11, I was introduced to ping pong.  I'd probably played a time or two before that, but that was the first time I played at any length and actually tried to get better.  Dad was very good.  He beat me over and over and over and over....and over again.  One thing I really appreciated about him was that he never let me win anything - I had to earn it, which made the (admittedly few) victories so much sweeter.  Anyway, when we got back to Baker, dad was just as excited to start playing more ping pong as I was, so he bought a table from a guy in the church and we started playing a lot.  For my part, I practiced hard.  Forrest Gump had recently come out, so I saw how he practiced against the table in the movie and emulated that trying to get better.  I went for...well...a very, very long time without beating dad.  Not even once.  I was getting better and better, closing the gap, coming closer, until one day I finally clawed my way to a victory.  Immediately upon finally ascending to the mountaintop, I got shot right back down to the valley below looking up.  Literally the first words dad said when the game was over and I was celebrating: "Boy, you're sure getting a lot better.  Pretty soon I'm going to have to start playing you right-handed."  It was then, in utter dejection, that I realized dad had never played me with his right hand.  Ever.  Over hundreds of games.   Hundreds of beat-downs.  He was taking it easy on me.  It took me another two years or so to finally beat him right-handed.  By the time all was said and done I was very good at ping pong.  Through high school only one of my friends ever beat me, and him only twice out of hundreds.  At my best, dad and I still shared about a 50/50 split.

Dad and Gary Halvorson: very bald men in very classy wigs
- Rook.  Dad took his Rook seriously.  Very seriously.  When he was in college teaching my mom to play, his persistent constructive criticism brought her to tears.  While I was never taken to the point of tears, I, too, endured my share of constructive criticism.  But it made me quite good at the game.  Through high school, I'd say my friends and I played an average of 5-10 games of Rook each week.  Dad was often playing with us.  Mom would get mad at him for staying up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning playing Rook on a Saturday night when he had to preach in the morning.  The Libby Rook crowd was truly amazing.  Ardell Filler, Gary Halvorson and dad - people we considered "old people" - would play Rook until the wee hours of the morning, especially when Roy Brewer was also in town.  One night over the holidays we had (if I remember correctly) 10 people pull a Rook all-nighter at the Filler residence.  Dad, of course, was there for the duration.  The weird thing about playing with the veterans was that for some reason the game became different with them.  Bids went for 15-20 points less consistently, yet people would still go set.  Two of my favorite Rook memories with dad happened the same night and, I think, in the same game.  It was a game at the Halvorson house between dad, Candace, Gary, Eddie Pohlreich, and one other that I can't remember, and me.  Dad and Eddie were bidding.  Eddie really wanted to keep going, but instead he passed and let dad have it.  He then laid hands on the kitty before dad picked it up and prayed, "God, please put three 10s in this kitty."  Dad picked the kitty up, looked at it, and then performed what is still remembered as his signature move - he slammed his hand to the table in disgust.  He then showed us the kitty...which contained three 10s.  Later that night, dad had taken the bid again.  Eddie was sitting immediately to his right, so he played just before dad.  Dad had a bare 10 of some color that had not yet been played in is hand and Eddie didn't know what to lead.  Somehow dad accidentally dropped the 10 out of his hand.  Eddie then led the 14 of whatever color that was.  Dad, of course knowing that Eddie would never had played that card had he not seen the card he dropped, looked at Eddie with flames coming from his eyes and screamed, "YOU RAT!!!" while knocking Eddie's hat off his head.  He then went on a mini-tirade about cheating when he knew darned well that he (and any other Rook player) would have done the same exact thing in that situation.  Because dad taught me to love Rook and most any other card or board game, I taught many of my friends who almost all play the game (and some at a very high level) still today.  He really can be credited with hundreds of hours of entertainment for us all.

Dad sitting in his office surrounded by a couple thousand books
- Theology.  Dad first introduced me to what theology should look like.  When my friends and I were having an intense debate over the merits (or lack thereof) of the TULIP, dad pointed us to classic sources and had us read them ourselves.  He first opened my mind to the idea that Christians didn't have to be fiat creationists when he read and passed on a book by Hugh Ross.  He never told me what to believe.  He told me what he believed when I asked, but he wasn't afraid to mix it up a bit theologically as well.  Probably the best example of him mixing it up with me was when I was about a senior in high school.  At the time I was trying to be Torah observant and was into Messianic Judaism pretty heavily.  Dad supported me in it while disagreeing with me on it.  In those days I was throwing out some pretty questionable interpretations of Paul.  Interpretations that even if I were to still be Torah observant (which I'm not), I wouldn't use.  Well, dad scheduled a time to sit down and hash through things with Jon Alexander and I.  Rather than just sitting there and throwing out proof texts like 98% of humanity would have done, dad had prepared a semi-scholarly presentation complete with references ranging from the ante-nicene fathers to modern commentators.  That was the first time anyone had properly taken it to me for my loose interpretations of scripture.  At the time I hated it.  But looking back, it showed me to how proper theology is done and definitely showed me that I wasn't doing it right.  I owe my approaches to both learning and discussing theology and philosophy to my dad's approach when discussing my beliefs with me.

I suppose this has been enough story telling.  I could go on, but I won't.  Suffice it to say that I miss my dad greatly and every year it seems I miss him more.  He was such a huge part of my life. He taught me to hunt, fish, shoot, and love the outdoors.  He taught me to love any type of competition whether any sport from pickleball to football or any game, Rook to Balderdash (his favorite board game).  But most importantly, he taught me what a proper marriage should look like and what a man of faith should be.  He still makes frequent appearances in my dreams, which seems odd given how long my mind has had to adjust to him being gone.  I think to some degree this is due to the fact that there are so many conversations and experiences I wish I could have had with him that I know I never can.  When you're in high school you don't think or get the opportunity to have most of the great conversations you want to have later down the road.  I wish I could have talked to him about my career path, my relationships (in failure and success), and life's frustrations.  I wish we could discuss the various theological and philosophical ideas that have come into my life since he passed.  I wish I could ask him how he thinks Justin Verlander would stack up against his favorite pitcher, Sandy Koufax.  I wish we could take that hunting trip to Alaska on which he always wanted to take me.  I wish we could team up just one more time for a game of Rook.  To be honest, there have been times when my faith has waned, shaken by this argument or that event in my life.  Sometimes, in the lowest of those low times, it has felt like the biggest part of what has kept my faith going has been the hope that one day I'll again get to see my dad.  I miss you pops.

In honor of dad's birthday, I'd really love it if some of you who happen to read this who knew him would respond with one (or more) of your favorite memories of him.  Thanks all.


  1. When I found out Paul had died I was at work and I fell to the floor just as I had in his living room when I found out my brother died. In both instances I felt completely helpless, and completely lost, overcome by the strongest emotion I had ever experienced. One man was my brother that I had known my whole life and the other I had known vaguely for only a few years. I think that for "the Libby guys", these two deaths will forever be linked. I know that to be the case for me. One day I lost my Paul, another day Scott lost his Paul - one day I lost my brother, one day he lost his father...on both days we both lost dear friends.

    It's somewhat strange for me to write "friend" or "Paul" when referring to Pastor Wheeler because Pastor Wheeler was all that I ever called him. I also never considered him my friend when growing up - he was my best friend's dad. Now we're in our 30's and time has a strange way of playing with the way we think. Pastor Wheeler isn't a 70 year old man, but he's the man that exists in my memory, the man that Scott described above. He's still vibrant, wonderful, and not quite as old.

    I suppose Scott wanted memories shared, so I had better do some of that.

    The Wheelers were very generous in allowing me to stay at their place my final year of high school. Prior to this, however, I did spend the night at Scott's a lot. One particular Saturday night I was staying at Scott's house playing Micro Machines on the Sega Genesis followed by many hours of Sports Jeopardy (the only reason I know anything about Seattle Slew). At what I'm guessing was 2:00 am, Scott and I decided we'd play a game that involved a very small bat, a waded up piece of paper, and various objects to represent bases in Scott's room/makeshift baseball field.

    We had a blast hitting this piece of paper all over and, of course, we were competitive. It's a trait that Scott got from his dad and I found somewhere along the way. Our fun was so great that everyone was hearing about it. Kids have a funny way of underestimating sound's range of travel. We were running into walls and yelling at 2:00 am the night before the Pastor's biggest day of the week - Sunday.

    At some point Anita came down and told us to be quiet - which, of course, turned into us whispering while we played for a few moments. Some time later Pastor Wheeler came down. He was obviously tired and somewhat furious. He opened the door and stared at the two of us.

    Seeing your friend's dad, who is also your pastor, stand in the door way in his pajamas, with his hair disheveled, and his eyes aflame, is quite intimidating. I thought he was going to destroy us - he did not. He simply said, "I'm tired, your mom is tired, and you're tired; so go to sleep".

    ...to be continued.

  2. It was simple and it worked. Without offering us any angry or harsh words he put a fear in us that ...made us realize how tired we probably should be. The next day Scott and I fell asleep while watching football...so did Pastor Wheeler.

    I must share one more memory that has to with discipline. I was talking in church as I had always done. It was Pastor Wheeler's first year in Libby and I had grown comfortable there with my friends. I sat front and center, as was the custom of the youth, while my grandparents sat in a set of pews behind me and to the right. In the middle of his sermon Pastor Wheeler called me out by name, told me to get up and go sit with my grandparents.

    I don't know how many times I've been in churches where I had wished the Pastor had the same fortitude to do that during his sermon. I suppose I got in trouble - I don't remember, but I will always remember being called out in the middle of service by the pastor...and I've been quiet in church ever sense.

    Now let me say one last thing...and this is for you Scott. I love you to the point where just typing that brings tears to my eyes...as did reading this. I watched you change after your dad died. I remember vividly those times where your faith was shaken. I remember one time where Angela and I were brought to tears just thinking of it. Through it all I have remained certain that you are his father's son. You lost him at a critical time in the midst of tough circumstances. It's easy to understand and justify how you were shaken. Still, I cannot look at you and not see him. You don't only have his face, you have the qualities and characteristics that we all think of when we reflect on him. All of those proud memories you have of him - they're in you. He taught them to you, just as you've mentioned above. In each story there's wisdom and character...something you've been blessed with in abundance.

    You are the man that you adore and love so much. I see it, your friends who knew you both see it, and I hope that you do too.

  3. Great blog Scott. Your dadmwasma great man and I would love to play rook with him again or simply have a great conversation with him now that we are grown.

  4. Uncle Paul and my daughter, Kaylee share a birthday and so every year we wish him a happy birthday <3 It's hard go believe it's been 11 years, 7 months and several days. I can still feel his strong but tender hugs that just filled you with love. I remember the sparkle in his eyes. I remember his sweetness. I love him very much and miss him as well. I wish I could comfort you cousin when you miss him, I just talk with him when I do and that eases the ache a little. Unfortunately because we always lived so far away our visits and so memories are few and I like my father and you Scott, remembering is not our strength but I can remember us how Uncle Paul made me feel, and I still feel those sweet loving feelings when I think of him today. We were all blessed to have Uncle Paul in our lives. I love you Scott <3

  5. P.S. In the beginning of October, Kaylee joined her school band. She wanted to play the trumpet. We began looking into renting an instrument when my mom said there is some kind of instrument in the garage and when we opened it, low and behold it was a trumpet! We knew nothing about where it came from. When dad got home, Kaylee told him the story and showed him it. He said, that's my brothers trumpet! Nobody remembers when we aquired but we foundcit was a special coincidence :) Kaylee even said, well it's almost our birthday maybe it was an early birthday present <3

  6. Thank you thank you Scott. I miss Uncle Paul so terribly sometimes. Thanks for all the wonderful memories you have shared with us. I cant believe he has been gone that long. I will ALWAYS still feel his presence. Love, Aunt Shirley

  7. I commented on this once, don't know what happened to it. I was awake just after midnight on the 27th and I thought of Paul. Since he was only 15 months younger than I, and he never let me forget it, I don't ever remember a time when he wasn't there for me. I miss that! I miss his jokes with words...he always tried to use words I wouldn't know to make his jokes...and usually I didn't know them. I think of all the years we spent holidays together - your family and ours. I miss those times. He was a true brother to Roy. He and Roy were filled with the Spirit the same night, kneeling side by side. They were closer than Roy and his blood brother - who is nine years younger. Paul and Roy had so many hunting memories together, too. I thank God for all the years we had, but wish there had been more. (And I would have had another sibling who would be 70---instead I have to wait another 2 1/2 years!) We love you Scott, and want you to know that we see you growing more and more like your father each time we see you! Blessings to you - and I think your dad watches over you and is proud of you...just like we are! Love you! Aunt Arlene

  8. Oh man, there are so many good memories. One time my dad joined us for a few hands of rook after church. He was getting ready to leave and put up the V sign with his fingers and said, "Peace". Pastor Paul put up a fist and responded, "Power". It was something so small, but I haven't heard someone say 'peace' since then without thinking of it.
    I also remember a game of Balderdash where one of the definitions I wrote was, "a small paring knife". I don't even remember what the word was, but that was the one and only time that Pastor Paul ever voted for my definition. I think it was the only moment of Balderdash triumph I ever had when he was playing with us. :)
    One thing I loved about him was how much he cared and paid attention to every one of us. I remember him sitting and talking with me at one of the AG father's day picnics up at the reservoir about some of my insecurities and how things would turn out for me. Lo and behold, he was right about everything he said. I have had many 'pastors' since him, but he's the only one that I really consider MY pastor.
    Oh, and one last little memory about his level of competitiveness. I remember him doing a full somersault on the hard gym floor while trying to hit the ball at a church volleyball game. He came up, and his hair was poking in all directions. I think all of us youngin's were stunned to see an 'old guy' do that. :)

  9. Thank you all for the comments! I enjoyed reading them very much. Love you all.

  10. My loss of Paul was huge, but I am reminded in reading this blog, Scott, that it is even greater for my sons. And every Father's Day I am keenly aware of that and pray extra hard for you. I was at Aunt Eunices when we read your blog together. She told me how Dad had learned to play tennis. She said that they played on a kitchen table, so they had to be extra exact on the corners and ends of the table and so when he got to finally play on a real ping-pong table there was not stopping him. Of course my memories of Dad are more than I can even share, but will suffice to say that I was blessed for 37 years to live with a man who I never had to question his love and respect for me. I was thrilled when you said we set an example of a great marriage for you. There were so many people in and out of our home, that it was our prayer to be just that! God did bless our marriage and our home, and it was something we always wanted to bless others with. Your dad was an amazing man and like you, to this day I love him and miss him as much as if it were just yesterday that he went to be with Jesus. And that is our hope, that some day soon we will be together again. Just had to share this memory though! It is a hunting memory. We had just moved to Gunnison to pastor, and Dad didn't know the area so a young man who hunts all the time told us he could take us to a place where he knew we could find deer. We got there at just the right spot as dawn was breaking and sure enough, there were deer. Dad let me shoot one, and as we headed over to get it, Dad said suddenly "Hit the ground" I said "What?" "HIT THE GROUND" he said! "There's a man down there with a gun and he is trying to shoot us" To make a long story short, we had been taken to someone's land and when they heard our shots he came to get us. We had to walk backwards up a hill and over the top and down and hide out until the guy quit patrolling the road. When we finally didn't see his car anymore, we took off for our car, where the young man was still waiting for us, and that was the end of our hunting for that day. And as far as I know, my one and only deer is still up there on that hill. :o(
    My life with Dad always brings a smile to my face. I am who I am today because he had faith in me and encouraged me to go beyond what I thought I could do; always gave me the feeling that he was proud of me and loved me deeply. I am so thankful for my memories, and as I walk by a picture of Dad and I on a daily basis, I smile thinking of our life together, and that he would be happy to know that God sent another wonderful guy into my life that has brought back joy and love into my life. Yes Paul is gone, but not really. John Alexander is right, he continues to live through you! You are a treasure, Scott; so much like your dad, and I am so blessed to have part of him still on this earth. Dad loved his 3 sons. They were his life,and if he were here, they would STILL be. Always remember that!!!!! Thank you so much for writing this in memory of Dad. You did a great job. Love, Mom