Pete Wheeler, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service passed away Tuesday, April 21 at the age of 93. Commissioner Wheeler was an iconic veteran leader in Georgia who served in his capacity for 66 years. Let me repeat, 66 years!
There are people in your life that made a difference and sometimes you don’t even know whom that person is or what he did for you. If you are a veteran or ever had a veteran in your family, Commissioner Wheeler is one of those persons. I don’t expect a lot of you to have even heard of Commissioner Wheeler in spite of his longevity in public service. That’s because he was not a publicity seeker or a glory-hound. He went about his work, serving veterans and that was his focus. That was his world. And that is why he was so highly respected and yes, revered.
That is also the reason he survived in State Government for 66 years! Commissioner level positions serve at the pleasure of the Governor and Commissioners have to be appointed or re-appointed when the Governor’s term begins. It is customary for a Governor to appoint “their own” commissioner to head each department. Commissioner Wheeler served under 12 Governors! That in itself is a testament to his level of commitment to veterans and his non-partisan, political genius. When asked who his favorite Governor was, he always responded, “The one that was in office at the time.”
He was one of the most unassuming, frugal, and “old fashioned” southern gentleman you would ever meet. Here was a man at the top of the food chain in State Government, yet for twelve years when I worked in downtown Atlanta, I ran into him every day on the MARTA transit system commuting to work just like any other worker. No matter the weather. On very cold days, he would be wearing his over-coat and a Russian-styled Ushanka hat. He always offered his seat to a lady even if she didn’t need it as much as he did.
Perhaps you know Commissioner Wheeler from your involvement with veteran service organizations. Perhaps you attended one of the annual GDVS Supermarkets of Veterans Benefits. Maybe one of his county GDVS offices has helped you file a claim with the Veterans Administration. Possibly a GDVS Claims Counselor represented you before the Board of Veterans Appeals. Someone from his office may have assisted you with veterans training and education matters. Maybe a relative was a resident of the Georgia War Home, or buried in the Georgia Veterans Cemetery in Milledgeville or Glennville. That was Pete Wheeler in the periphery of your life.
On the national level, perhaps you have visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Commissioner Wheeler was appointed chairman of the Advisory Board by President Bill Clinton in 1994, and at it’s dedication in 2004, I remember how proud I was to see him on CNN sitting with then-President George Bush (yes, even I can be non-partisan at times.)
Commissioner Wheeler was a World War II veteran of the United States Army and then joined the Georgia National Guard in 1950 and retired in 1978 as Brigadier General. He was a graduate of the University of Georgia and admitted to the State Bar of Georgia in 1949.
On a personal note, it’s unlikely, but if anyone should ever write the biography of George and Marilyn Langford, Commissioner Wheeler would be mentioned throughout most chapters. You see, Commissioner Wheeler recognized something in George and set about to train him in the veterans business when George was a greenhorn Vietnam veteran. That was Commissioner Wheeler’s forte. His employees were almost all handpicked, dedicated to the service of veterans, and fiercely loyal to their boss, as he was to them.
There will never be another Pete Wheeler, at least not in my lifetime.