ST. CHARLES – Joe Estok boomed his drive down the middle of the first fairway at Pottawatomie Golf Course Wednesday morning before following with a short phrase.
Like a golfer’s familiar “Sit down” or “That’ll play,” “That was for Wheeler” sounded instinctual. It was Estok’s natural reaction hours after learning former longtime Pottawatomie pro Jim Wheeler had died Tuesday at 68.
Upon yanking his own opening tee shot into the trees only to see the ball kick back into the fairway, playing partner Bob Paluch smiled and suggested his departed friend played a role in the improved lie. Guidance from above? That might not be outside Wheeler’s range depending on who you ask.
“Somehow, he’s connected to this whole town. He really is,” said Pottawatomie assistant pro Bill Ogiego, who worked alongside Wheeler for a decade. “You talk about the six degrees of separation kind of thing, Jim is. Being here for 31 years at Pottawatomie, there is somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody, obviously, that Jim has come across.”
Whether they heard the news through that extensive pipeline Tuesday or as they arrived at Pottawatomie – still closely associated with Wheeler three years after his retirement – on Wednesday, the St. Charles golf community was reeling.
Wheeler worked meticulously to ensure his course felt like home to adults, juniors and high school athletes during tournament and regular play, and his personal touch won’t soon be lost on those parties.
He brought the same approach to an active life in volunteering, including as coordinator of the Tri-Cities Salvation Army’s Toys for Kids program each holiday season.
“I just call him a community treasure,” said St. Charles North boys golf coach Rob Prentiss, who encountered Wheeler during his first season at Pottawatomie in 1980. “I’m sure I’m not the only one with memories flooding back today. I’m sure there are a lot of people whose hearts are heavy today.”
Wheeler is survived by his wife, Patti, his sister, Carol, and daughters Amy and Kimberly – both of Oxford, Ohio. He had five grandchildren: Abigail, Matthew, Kaylyn, Molly and William.
Friends were told Wheeler died sometime in the late afternoon or early evening Tuesday after following a familiar daily routine.
Accompanied by friends Ken Robertson and Gary Beck, he arrived at Arcedium Coffeehouse in downtown St. Charles around 6 a.m. before heading to Mill Creek Golf Club in Geneva, where Wheeler had worked to varying degrees since his retirement from the St. Charles Park District on Feb. 28, 2011.
A heart bypass procedure in April 2013 did not deter him.
When he wasn’t in the pro shop or giving lessons at Mill Creek, his business there often fell under what director of golf Steve Feddern called “typical Wheeler.” Wheeler, who also had recently joined the Aurora Central Catholic boys program as an assistant coach, had coffee and hung around to stay immersed in the golfing business.
His appearance Tuesday wasn’t among the renowned ironman’s longest at a course.
“He gave me some crap going out the door. He was making a couple jokes about my game and blah blah blah,” Feddern said. “He said he was going home to cut the grass. And I guess that’s kind of what happened was he cut the grass and then laid down on the couch and that was it. Yeah. Strange. Strange, strange world, man. It [stinks].”
Ogiego said one of Wheeler’s neighbors in Geneva called the Pottawatomie pro shop shortly before 7 p.m. Tuesday to report an ambulance at the Wheeler home. Trying his best not to speculate for the worst, Ogiego didn’t have to when Robertson called confirming Wheeler’s death at about 7:15.
“It’s just a shock. It’s just trying to get to that point where you go, ‘You’re just not going to see him,’ ” Ogiego said. “There’s so many reminders down here of him, you know, that he’s never going to be gone.”
For more than three decades, that could have been Wheeler answering phones at twilight. The Peoria native, who spent one year at Inverness in Palatine before coming to Pottawatomie, was no stranger to 14- to 16-hour days, even hypothetical ones.
“If you walk in the door on Tuesday, May 2, 1983, you’re going to see the same Jimmy Wheeler as if you walked in the door on Tuesday, July 17, 1997,” said Rick Bell of St. Charles, Wheeler’s first Pottawatomie assistant and now a certified PGA teaching professional. “He was very, very even and I learned a lot from him from that standpoint. He had his professional hat on every time you walked in the door. And that meant a lot to me.”
Pottawatomie regular Chuck Bowgren saw Wheeler both on the course and as a family man. With Bowgren’s daughters as part of the group, Wheeler served as tribe leader in the YMCA Indian Princesses program.
“Jim was different, but different in a neat kind of way,” Bowgren said. “He was Mr. Park District. He was anybody’s employer’s dream, if you will. He just cared about what he did. He loved his family and he loved his job.”
At his core, Wheeler simply cherished people, especially those who played sports. In addition to supporting the St. Charles East and North golf teams, he was a mainstay at St. Charles high school athletic events and well-known throughout town.
“Always lively,” Arcedium manager Michael Burkholder said. “Always on top of the world, you know. Always wanted to know who else was here when we opened, and ‘How are you doing today?’ Just an all-around, wonderful guy from everything I knew. It’s a tough day.”
Feddern and Ogiego both golfed at St. Charles High, knowing Wheeler’s playful crotchitiness first as teens and later colleagues.
“He could light some people up,” Feddern said, “but he cared about every one of us. Can’t say enough about how much he gave to everybody.”
Prentiss also has spent the past couple days searching for words.
He embraced Pottawatomie as his home course after his parents relocated to St. Charles late in his college career, then got to know Wheeler so well that each of Prentiss’ four children were rattled by Tuesday’s news.
“I know that was a scare last spring, but we figured he was as good as new and would be around forever,” Prentiss said. “Sometimes you forget to treasure those special moments in your life that add quality to your life. We didn’t get to say goodbye to him.”
Visitation for Jim Wheeler will take place from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday at Yurs Funeral Home, 405 E. Main Street, St. Charles.
The funeral will began at 1 p.m. Monday at Hosanna! Lutheran Church, 36W925 Red Gate Road, St. Charles. Burial is private.