If you are a Georgia veteran, that name is very familiar to you. Pete Wheeler is the commissioner of our Georgia Department of Veterans Service.
Commissioner Wheeler is 90 years old, has been in his office for 64 years and shows no signs of slowing down.
Searching for facts about the commissioner, I read that when he was named director of the Department of Veterans Services, Georgia still operated a home for widows of Civil War soldiers and veterans of the Spanish-American War were drawing pensions.
With his education and experience, Commissioner Wheeler is well qualified to fill the position he has held for decades.
He was in the ROTC cavalry when he was a student at the University of Georgia. After falling off his horse, he switched to infantry. After graduation, he was called to active duty and went to Camp Roberts in California. There, he trained combat troops.
In an interview with Pete Mecca for the Rockdale Citizen, the commissioner contributed his not being sent to the War in the Pacific during World War II to two people — Paul Tibbets and President Harry Truman.
Tibbets was pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb over Japan. President Truman made the decision to use the bomb and thus end World War II.
Pete Wheeler’s service to his country did not end when the war ended. He continued in the Georgia Army National Guard even after he became the commissioner of Veterans Affairs. When he retired from the National Guard in 1978, he had attained the rank of brigadier general.
His late wife, Geraldine, was an Army Cadet Nurse. She was as respected and revered as her husband. Described as a “riot,” he says he and his wife never had a fight. He attributed that to three words. When I heard that story, I knew the words were, “I love you.” I was wrong. They were, “Yes, dear, when?”
Described as “a master of poker face humor,” the commissioner credits his long life span to God and Coca-Cola.
He claims to know the secret recipe of Coca-Cola. According to him, tongue-in-cheek, it is holy water. Then he explains how to make holy water. Boil the hell out of it. A Christian, it is not surprising that his favorite hymn is “Help Somebody Today, Somebody along Life’s Way.” That is exactly what he has been doing for decades, helping others along life’s way.
The commissioner must think fast on his feet. That was a good thing when he attended the dedication of the Governor’s Mansion. It was a big surprise to him when Gov. Lester Maddox introduced him as the main speaker. The commissioner handled it well.
Dedicated to public service and championing the causes of Georgia’s veterans, Pete Wheeler has served under 12 governors. When he is asked who was the best of them, he has a ready answer. It is the governor sitting in the chair.
The commissioner enjoys being a low profile person, yet his accomplishments and recognitions are many.
Since 1954, he has served as Georgia chairman of the National Veterans Day Committee.
The president of the United States appointed him chairman of the National WWII Memorial Advisory Board. He served in that position until the memorial was dedicated in 2004.
An attorney, the State Bar of Georgia honored him with a Certificate of Accomplishment commemorating the completion of more than 50 years of service as a member of the Bar.
Going through the list of the many recognitions given to Commissioner Wheeler, I found a personal favorite. It is the “Play it Again Pete” annual golf tournament that raises money for the Atlanta VA Medical Center’s Homeless Veterans Program.
The commissioner’s secretary, Mary Aukerman, made a statement about him that I think is more important as any award he has received. She said, “He is a good citizen.”
Often we have heard the merits of leading by example. That is exactly what Commissioner Pete Wheeler does. You and I can follow his lead.
In appreciation of the service of Commissioner Wheeler and all of our veterans, we can resolve to be better citizens.
Marguerite Cline is the former mayor of Waleska.