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John Wheeler Jr.

John Franklin Wheeler Jr., a retired educator, lifelong athlete and World War II veteran, died of a blood disorder Tuesday at St. Joseph Medical Center. The longtime Kingsville resident, who recently resided at Oak Crest Village in Parkville, was 89.

Mr. Wheeler played the piano for two hours every morning, golfed and rode a bike well into his 80s, and he inspired many with his zest for life.

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"He really could do anything and fix anything," said his wife of 49 years, the former Mary Christine Wagner. "Everything he did, he did with great joy, whether it was playing golf, riding the lawn tractor or caning a chair. He liked everything he did in life."

Born on his family's dairy farm on Pot Spring Road, Mr. Wheeler attended Towson High School. He graduated in 1938 with a degree in education from what is now Towson University. He later earned two master's degrees from the University of Maryland.

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While in college, Mr. Wheeler earned 12 varsity letters, four each in soccer, basketball and baseball. He was inducted into the university's Hall of Fame.

"In soccer throughout college, he played every game for the entire game and was never substituted," said his stepson, Vernon Grabel of Cape Cod, Mass. "He had many sports accomplishments of his own, and he reveled in ours and his grandchildren's."

Mr. Wheeler was teaching elementary school in Fork in Baltimore County when he joined the Army in 1941. He spent most of the war in the Pacific and was deployed to Okinawa. He remained in the reserve officers corps for about 25 years, holding the rank of major at his retirement.

After his active military service, he returned to his career in education. He served as vice principal at Parkville Middle School and, at his retirement in 1977, was vice principal at Dundalk High School.

Mr. Wheeler drew his family into many activities, most notably sports and music. "If I wanted to be with him, I had to learn to play golf," said Mrs. Wheeler, a retired Baltimore County schools pupil personnel worker. "We would go everywhere to play, but he especially liked the courses at the local military bases."

The couple met on a blind date at a Colts game in 1957 and wed a year later.

"He had that tough Army exterior, but there was all that kindness underneath," said Mrs. Wheeler, who was a widow with two young children at the time.

Mr. Grabel, whose father died when he was 3, said he always considered Mr. Wheeler "my dad, a playful, wonderful man."

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His family said he enjoyed playing the piano, usually rising at 5:30 to practice for a few hours. He sang in a soulful voice, encouraging his family to sing along with favorite tunes or compositions, many of which he had written.

"His mother was a concert pianist, and he carried on the music tradition," said Mr. Grabel. "He would write his own compositions. We have stacks and stacks of his music."

Mr. Wheeler and his wife, who plays keyboards, often entertained their Oak Crest neighbors. His habit of abruptly changing the lyrics of an old tune usually generated laughs. On birthdays, the children and grandchildren could count on a singing phone call.

Services, with full military honors, were held Friday at St. Michael Lutheran Church in Perry Hall, where he was a longtime member and Sunday school superintendent.

Other survivors include a son, John F. Wheeler III of Queen Anne's County; a daughter, Susan Marinello of Frederick; and five grandchildren.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com


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