CLEVELAND- From far and near they gathered on Thursday. A sea of uniforms stood in front of the church as throngs of civilians filed inside. All were there because of a life cut short and a man whose legacy will live on in the Cleveland community and in fire agencies throughout southeast Texas and beyond.
Cleveland Fire Chief / EMS Director Steven Michael “Steve” Wheeler, 55, died unexpectedly on Monday, March 30, 2009.
Chief Wheeler was born in Louisiana but moved to Cleveland shortly thereafter. As a boy, he dreamed of being a firefighter. Not only was that dream realized over 30 years ago, it was surpassed. Wheeler became the Cleveland Fire Chief in 1982, which he remained until his death. During that time, Wheeler participated in, and provided mutual aid to fire departments throughout Liberty and adjoining counties, and headed up the Cleveland Fire Academy. The program has produced certified full-time firefighters who now work for agencies all over the state. He led the city’s fire and EMS crews through every imaginable crisis or disaster during his tenure and gained a tremendous amount of respect from other public servants and civilians alike.
That respect was evident throughout the past week, with flags at half staff all over the city and the tragedy of his death a topic of discussion everywhere people congregated.
The service was held at Cornerstone Church on SH 105, west of Cleveland. Mourners drove between two ladder trucks which held a large American flag between them, high in the air. On the highway and in the parking lot were fire apparatus from departments in Liberty and surrounding counties, along with EMS vehicles and police patrol cars.
One of the largest sanctuaries in the area was packed with people as speakers honored Chief Wheeler, standing on a raised area behind his flag draped coffin.
Pastor Bob White likened the Chief to the Biblical “Good Samaritan.”
Frieda White, the executive director of Operation Refuge who worked closely with Wheeler in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, called him an “amazing man, a good man, a wise man and a man that could handle any type of disaster.”
White said she went to congratulate Wheeler after he was named “Citizen of the Year” and he responded with, “I’m just doing my job.”
She talked about the birthday wish the Chief granted her 80-year-old mother, who said she always wanted to ride on a fire truck. With only a mention, the wish was granted and a fire truck picked up White’s elderly mother and transported her to her party. It was one of many stories and illustrations shared throughout the viewing and the funeral service.
“How have the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle,” White said, in another Biblical reference.
“If there ever was a mighty man in Cleveland, his name was Steve Wheeler.”
Jack Wheeler, Steve’s older brother, called him “a gift.” A successful businessman, Jack Wheeler said his father showed him some news clippings about his brother around a month ago, and he felt “insignificant” seeing his brother’s contributions to his community.
He shared childhood memories of his brother and the story of the only letter Steve Wheeler ever wrote Jack, who was fighting in Vietnam at the time.
“We came back to our base and we got our mail,” he said. “Suddenly there was a firefight and we had to go back out in the bush and I just tucked the letter in my uniform and didn’t think much about it.”
“I got wounded – shot a couple times, and I was being Medevaced out of there, and I was going in and out of consciousness,” he said. The medic on the chopper was trying to take care of me and the letter fell out.”
The medic offered to read the letter to Jack, who was seriously injured. Steve, who was not yet in high school, wrote to his brother that everyone was talking in class about the war and everybody was against it, but Steve Wheeler wanted his brother to know that he was proud of him and knew Jack would make it home and be all right. Jack Wheeler said he was unconscious for about two weeks before he awoke in the Philippines where his first thoughts were of the letter from his younger brother.
Jack Wheeler said his brother once told him he had not missed a call for 11 straight years and was going for 12.
“For 30 years, that was Steve and his life,” Jack Wheeler said. “He gave everything.”
Longtime friend and former colleague Charles Coe talked about how things have changed from the time Steve Wheeler joined the fire department and EMS, when ambulances were dispatched out of the funeral homes.
He reminisced about Steve Wheeler’s work ethic, his compassion, his practical jokes and his devotion to his community.
“Steve didn’t stay here in Cleveland because the money was good, whether working for the city or fighting fires,” Coe said. “He stayed here because this is where his tour of duty was.”
Far away, on Capital Hill, Congressman Ted Poe also spoke about Steve Wheeler on Thursday, saying Cleveland lost “one of their finest citizens.”
“Steve was more than a Fire Chief. He was a fireman’s firefighter–dedicated to the people of his town,” Poe said.
“Steve will be remembered most for the 30 years as Chief of the Cleveland Volunteer Fire Department, for that firefighter spirit that he had, and that unwavering devotion to his firemen,” he said.
“Today, Chief Steve Wheeler answered his last call. Flags will be lowered; the final radio call will be made; and the final fire bell will be rung.”
The Conroe Fire Department Honor Guard, the East Montgomery County Honor Guard and Color Guard – New Caney Fire Department – carried Wheeler’s coffin between two long lines of uniformed firefighters, “a wall of honor,” to the waiting Cleveland Fire truck, for his last ride. The truck went east on SH 105 into Cleveland where every flag remained at half staff and citizens lined up along the roadsides, waving their American flags, as the truck carrying the Chief passed them.
The long precession wound its way to the cemetery on FM 2025. Helicopters from PHI Air Medical and from Life Flight did “flyovers” to honor the chief.
The flag was removed from Wheeler’s coffin and presented to his widow. Everyone endured the painful finality of his 7-1 radio call, along with the ringing of the bell, which is a tradition that predates radio systems when a bell was rung seven times and then once to signify that firefighters had gone home. Bagpipes played Amazing Grace as the traditionally clad bagpiper walked slowly from the graveside toward the nearby Cleveland Fire Department engine that carried the chief to his last call.
At the conclusion, mourners gathered in an open space beyond the tent, where 21 doves were released, gliding on air and disappearing into the clear blue sky.
The large crowd slowly disbursed.
A woman, quietly standing in the back of everyone, wept openly as the service ended. Like so many others, Nicole McGuire was there not because of Steve Wheeler’s title, or affiliation, but because he touched her life in a special way.
In that way, her story is not unique, but one more example of why the life and the death of Chief Wheeler affected so many so deeply.
McGuire’s 9-year-old son, Tanner, has a rare medical condition that causes his body to be allergic to food, creating a myriad of major health problems. McGuire met Chief Wheeler during Hurricane Ike when the power packs vital to her son’s survival were beginning to fail.
“I went to the police department for help and Steve was the one standing at the door,” she said. “I told him my fear of what was going on and he jumped right on it, finding us a place to go. He stayed in contact, leaving notes on our door to make sure we were okay through the time we were without power.”
The Chief did not forget the McGuire family after power was restored and life returned to normal.
“We weren’t going to have Christmas, and we’d already told my son that we would not have a Christmas because we just couldn’t at that point,” she said.
Then Wheeler stepped in and the city “adopted” the couple’s 8 and 3-year-old sons for Christmas, giving them the “best Christmas ever,” McGuire said.
Tears streamed down her face as she spoke of Steve Wheeler. She is making a scrapbook about the Chief for her son so he will know something about the man who did so much for him, and their family, when no one else could or would.
“It’ll be a story for my son to tell his children one day,” she said.
Everyone in attendance seemed to have that one thing in common. They each had a personal story about how Chief Wheeler touched their lives and why he would always have a special place in their hearts.
“Steve Wheeler has left a lasting mark – His footprints are on my heart and they’ll stay there,” McGuire said. “It’s people like that who show you the world’s still worth being in.”
Albert Einstein once said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”