A lifelong educator, who always strived to do what was best for the children and to stand up for what he thought was right, even if it wasn't popular, is how Dr. Leonard Wheeler was remembered Tuesday by family, friends and colleagues.
Dr. Wheeler, 73, the president of the Harford County Board of Education, who was appointed to the board in 2008, died Sept. 11 at his Bel Air home and was remembered during his funeral service Tuesday at Ames United Methodist Church in Bel Air Tuesday morning. He was buried in Arbutus Memorial Park on Sulphur Spring Road in Baltimore.
"We have come here on this glorious day to celebrate the life of Dr. Leonard Wheeler," Rev. Janet Long said to begin the service. "He found the God who can look beyond the mess outside and see the inner heart."
Dr. Wheeler was involved in education for most of his life as a teacher, curriculum specialist, principal and assistant superintendent for Baltimore City Public Schools, as an associate professor in the Department of Education at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and as the local school board president.
"His is a legacy about love. He leaves a legacy of love for his children, Christopher, Leonard, Evangeline and Vell, and caring and commitment to public education," Dr. Wheeler's wife, Dr. Barbara Wheeler, superintendent of Kent County Public Schools, said of her husband. "He touched the hearts and minds of people he came in contact with."
"The world is a better place because Leonard was here," she said.
Joan Wiggins, who sang "His Eye is on the Sparrow," recalled Dr. Wheeler's spot in church, on the right side, five to six rows back.
"He was a quiet soul, a reverent soul," Wiggins said.
Robert Tomback, superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, remembered Dr. Wheeler fondly, especially their Thursday morning breakfasts, and countless cups of coffee, at Open Door Cafe.
That's where Tomback got to know Dr. Wheeler not as much as an educator, but as a man.
Tomback spoke of his devotion to children and their education, and the hope Dr. Wheeler had and how he "actualized that hope." Tomback called him enigmatic and introspective.
"The impression he made on children and adults is strong and should be admired," Tomback said.
He recalled Dr. Wheeler's "somewhat unique" oratory style, which he likened to Muhammad Ali's "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
Dr. Wheeler would be talking and talking about a subject, here, there and everywhere, and Tomback remembered thinking, on more than one occasion, "OK, Leonard, where are you going with this and how long will it take us to get there?" And as he spoke of an issue so intricate and tangled, "Bam, he stung like a bee" with his point, Tomback said.
"He delivered it clearly, he delivered it emphatically and sometimes ferociously, but always respectfully and thoughtfully," he said.
Tomback remembered Dr. Wheeler's last board meeting on Sept. 10, when they sat next to each other on the dais, and Dr. Wheeler said that when people are faithful and loyal to an institution, "they will make the best decision," Tomback said, choking back tears.
Others in Harford County Public Schools remembered Dr. Wheeler similarly. The superintendent asked staff from the school system to send him their thoughts on the school board president. The following is a sample of what he received:
-"He was a fearless voice that challenged us all."
-"I will miss his passion and fearlessness in doing what is right for the children."
-"He was a tough instructor, one you look back on and say you're a better professional because he challenged you."
-"You left a conversation feeling like there was something more to learn about the world."
-"He provided a quality education program for all children..."
-"He was clearly an advocate for kids."
-"He would stand alone for a policy he believed in."
-"He stood up for what he believed in even when it was not popular."
-"He never wavered from what he believed and that all people are inherently good and capable of great things."
The school board president was a deep thinker, and often after a long dissertation on one subject or another, Dr. Wheeler often ended by saying "And that's why I sleep with the lights on."
"Now Dr. Wheeler lives with eternal light," Tomback said.