Commissioner Pete Wheeler dies today

Published 4:49 pm Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Commissioner Pete Wheeler, leader of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service since 1954, died peacefully surrounded by family in the early morning, Tuesday, April 21, 2015.

Wheeler joined the GDVS in 1949 as director of the education division. In 1951 he was named assistant director of the department and served in that capacity until his appointment as the department’s director (title later changed to Georgia Commissioner of Veterans Service) on June 26, 1954.

Fifteen reappointments later, Wheeler was still in charge.

A decline in his health forced him to take a prolonged medical leave beginning in late 2014, but Commissioner Wheeler remained active. While delegating some day-to-day responsibilities, he nonetheless stayed on top of department business through daily phone calls with his assistants. He was adamant he would return to the office as soon as his physicians allowed.

For 66 years, he was a steadfast public servant and unswerving advocate for all veterans. Throughout his career, Commissioner Wheeler was a respected leader in the veterans community, whose experience and expertise was recognized and called upon at the national level.

Shortly after his appointment to lead the GDVS in 1954, Wheeler joined the effort to recognize the new federal holiday, Veterans Day. He was named Georgia Chairman of the National Veterans Day Committee and in that capacity, together with Governor Herman Talmadge, he arranged a formal proclamation signing ceremony declaring the new holiday in Georgia. This proclamation signing became a tradition in the state, unbroken to this day; 2014 marked the first year Commissioner Wheeler was unable to attend.

In 1966, responding to the needs of the first veterans returning from the Vietnam War, as well as their families and survivors, Wheeler created the Supermarket of Veterans Benefits, a one-day informational event designed to bring together every local, state, and federal agency providing service to veterans. The hugely successful program became an annual signature event of the GDVS, and the concept has been copied throughout the nation.

He was appointed chairman of the National World War II Memorial Advisory Board by President Bill Clinton in 1994, and served until the memorial’s dedication with President George W. Bush in 2004. He was a past president of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs and remained active in that group throughout his career. He was a life member of the American Legion, DAV, and AMVETS.

Wheeler was a proud graduate of the University of Georgia. He was a member of Kappa Sigma and was awarded that fraternity’s lifetime achievement award. He was an attorney, admitted to the State Bar of Georgia in 1949 and admitted to practice before all state and federal courts.

A World War II veteran of the United States Army, Wheeler joined the Georgia National Guard in 1950 and retired in 1978, at the rank of brigadier general.

In 1998, the General Assembly issued a resolution renaming the state’s war veterans memorial complex as the “Pete Wheeler Georgia War Veterans Memorial Complex.” Overseen by the GDVS and the Georgia Building Authority, the complex includes memorials to Georgia veterans from the Spanish-American War through Desert Storm/Desert Shield. Earlier this year, Wheeler approved the design for the next addition, a memorial honoring those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; it will be dedicated May 20.

Commissioner Wheeler was honored so frequently that a comprehensive list of his awards is difficult to compile. A few of the highlights include:

• Inducted into the inaugural class (2013) of the Georgia Military Veterans Hall of Fame, for Dedicated Service

• Recipient of the Silver Helmet Award, presented by AMVETS

• Recipient of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge George Washington Honor Medal

• Recipient of the American Legion Gold Honor Medal

• Recipient of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Silver and Gold Medals of Merit

• Recipient of the Patrick Henry Award, presented by the National Guard Association of the United States

• Recipient of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs Lifetime Achievement Award

• Recipient of the Atlanta USO’s Patriot of the Year Award for 2011

• Honored with “Play it Again Pete,” an annual golf tournament sponsored by the Military Order of the Purple Heart National Service Foundation to raise money for the Atlanta VA Medical Center’s Homeless Veterans Program.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 59 years, Geraldine; and a daughter, Jane Watkins. Survivors include a daughter and son-in-law, Frances and Mark Jones of Atlanta; son and daughter-in-law, Peter B. “Chip” and Debbie Wheeler of Lawrenceville; son-in-law, John Watkins of Snellville; and six grandchildren, Matthew Wheeler, Joshua Watkins, Joanna Watkins, Alex Jones, Charles Jones, and Jonathan Jones.

A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 26, at Decatur First United Methodist Church, 300 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur GA 30030, where he was a member, with the Rev. Dr. David Bevel Jones officiating. The committal service will be held at 1 p.m. Monday, April 27, at Georgia Veterans Memorial Cemetery, 2617 Vinson Highway, Milledgeville GA 31061. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Georgia War Veterans Home, 2249 Vinson Highway, Milledgeville GA 31061. The family will receive friends from 2-6 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at A. S. Turner & Sons, 2773 N. Decatur Road, Decatur, GA 30033.