I don’t have a formal education – no august and worldly professors to teach me the intricacies of my chosen profession – or how to read critically and think strategically.
Which means I had to become a good mimic early – observing people who were influential in my life and adopting the positives. Listening, watching and accepting constructive criticism, then adopting those practices and observations.
And I’ve always said that experiential learning is the most expensive education one can receive.
It can be painful, too.
I first met Mr. Wheeler in the late 1970’s when I was a foundering student at Seabreeze High School, and he served as Assistant Principal.
To say I was a “difficult” student is an understatement – prone to mischief, truancy and the petty fistfights and scrapes that teenage boys used to settle differences in the day – which meant that I received a stack of disciplinary “referrals” to Mr. Wheeler’s office.
In his essential role as the school disciplinarian, Mr. Wheeler would mediate disputes, serve as a listening board, provide direction and adjudicate various and sundry conduct violations, and, when necessary, correct a recalcitrant student’s behavior in the form of several sharp whacks from a ventilated paddle vigorously applied to the offender’s backside.
Now, to say Mr. Wheeler cut an imposing figure is an understatement.
He was tall, standing well over six-feet, with a lean swimmers build and massive hands – the size of catcher’s mitts – that swallowed a normal man’s hand and seemed doubly huge to a kid awaiting a liberal application of “corporal punishment.”
Expertly done, the ritual included Mr. Wheeler slowly reviewing the facts of the case, placing a call to my parents for permission to tan my hide (which was always eagerly extended), a long conversation regarding the error of my ways and the future consequences of my abhorrent course – all dragging out the inevitable – making what I knew was to come even more excruciating. . .
When the time came to administer the punishment, Mr. Wheeler would direct that I remove everything from my back pockets and put my hands on his desk as he limbered up that brown wooden paddle with the holes drilled in the middle – I always assumed to limit induced drag and allow a better connection with the target.
With a grimace on my face – I would stand firm, awaiting the three well-placed swats to the seat of my jeans – blows that were always more humiliating than painful.
In turn, Mr. Wheeler would always place a second call to my parents – advising them that, in retrospect, maybe the infraction wasn’t quite as bad as it had originally seemed – and that I had taken my medicine like a man – thankfully mitigating any further sanction I may have received when I got home.
I always appreciated that.
Once I had been suitably disciplined, Mr. Wheeler would shake my hand, put his arm around my shoulder, and made sure I understood how much he wanted me to succeed.
That taught compassion.
In addition to his role as an educator, Mr. Wheeler served as a Daytona Beach Police Officer – and, as a young man, cemented his legendary leadership skills as Chief of Lifeguards for the Beach Patrol.
In 1988, following retirement from Volusia County Schools, Mr. Wheeler was appointed Chief Investigator for the Seventh Judicial Circuit under then State Attorney John Tanner.
By then, I had followed my dream and earned a job with the Holly Hill Police Department, where my relationship with Mr. Wheeler changed to a true mentorship – and I always appreciated knowing that he had my best interests, personally and professionally, at heart.
I knew I could always count on Mr. Wheeler for sound advice – and, when I later served in a senior command role – I would frequently call on him, at all hours, confident in his ability to see the various political and procedural pitfalls and provide common sense guidance.
He never failed me – or the needs of our community.
That taught the importance of accessibility.
My experience wasn’t unique.
During his long tenure, Mr. Wheeler provided quiet support and assistance to many law enforcement executives, consulting on sensitive issues, and his behind-the-scenes involvement served local departments – and the citizens of the Seventh Judicial Circuit – extremely well.
For instance, he taught me the importance of strategic thinking – the art of setting controversial issues aside for a few days to allow time to consider all alternatives, including unintended consequences, then making an informed decision, rather than one based on an emotional gut-reaction or the political pressures of the moment.
That taught leadership and poise under pressure.
And, when necessary, he would call me on the carpet and administer a good, old-fashioned chewing out when I got it wrong – always with that big smile that could be equally charming – or frighteningly ominous – depending on the situation.
That taught accountability.
On occasion, I had a chance to extract some good-natured revenge for the experience of my youth.
Whenever I had the opportunity to speak to groups where Mr. Wheeler was in attendance, I never missed the chance to remind everyone assembled that I was the only Chief of Police in Volusia County to have ever been paddled by Bob Wheeler for other than recreational purposes – which always resulted in an uncomfortable grin and that hearty giggle the big man was known for.
One of the great blessings in my life was the seat-of-the-pants discipline and incredible lessons I received from Mr. Wheeler – an education that changed my life and trajectory immeasurably.
You may have noticed that I have referred to this great man as “Mr. Wheeler” – because that is how he was addressed – by literally everyone – regardless of title or importance.
He didn’t demand it – as he was one of the most humble, unpretentious and down-to-earth old school gentlemen I have ever known – but that was the level of respect and admiration in which he was universally held.
Robert Lee “Cree” Wheeler passed into the everlasting life his faith assured during the early hours of last Monday morning.
He was 83 years old.
Thank you, Mr. Wheeler, for showing me the way – in so many ways.
May you rest in peace, my friend.