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Life Story / Obituary
Born to Cherokee parents in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, James “Wag” Wheeler was a strong, steadfast, and hardworking man who was a blessing in the lives of those around him. He was the sort of person everyone could count on as he was an amazing listener, a trusted confidante, and a loyal friend. Wag was a man of deep convictions who was a champion for those marginalized with a lifelong desire to make the world around him a better place. Although he accomplished so much of which to be proud, he was a humble man who lived to serve in ways, both great and small. Deeply loved, Wag will be forever missed.
The 1930s were a time unlike any other in American history as the entire decade was cloaked in the hardship of the Great Depression. Communities and families often came together, helping in whatever way they could to overcome the great trials and tribulations that defined this decade. It was on February 11, 1935, that James was welcomed into the world by his parents, William Richard and Alma Mae (Moore) Wheeler, joining his older siblings, Nancy and Perry, in the family. Their family was later completed with the births of Charlotte and Janie, and they were all very close with one another. Their extended family was also very close as holidays and Sunday dinners were spent at Grandma Wheeler’s. It has been said that Wag and his siblings had “the best childhood.”
Resourceful and hardworking, Wag’s father made fishing tackle and raised earthworms to sell from home until WWII. His father then closed his business and went to work for his father and uncle in the local funeral home/furniture store. In 1948 they added a flower shop and closed the furniture store. Wag’s mother was a homemaker who cared for their home at 123 S. Wheeler Avenue, in Sallisaw. The extended family all purchased lots and built homes there as well. When they opened the flower shop, Wag’s mother worked as the bookkeeper there.
From the time he was a young boy, Wag was a bustle of activity. He was an avid sports fan who played basketball, baseball, and football whenever he could. Wag attended Liberty Grade School and Sallisaw High School where he was a member of the 1952 and 1953 basketball teams that made it to the state finals game and finished as state runners-up. Wag later earned his bachelors degree in business and accounting from Northeastern State College, Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Life was forever changed for Wag when he married Yvonne Stinnett. Together they had three children including Randy, Cynda, and Mark who were all born in Sallisaw. As a young father, Wag worked at the funeral home and was city manager of Sallisaw for a short time. He also officiated basketball and football for over twenty years, which was a big part of his life. As a young family, they enjoyed camping and hiking trips, and every Christmas season he would load up the family and head to Ouachita National Forest to cut down their family Christmas tree, which wasn’t exactly legal. Wag played on a fast pitch softball team, and the family often traveled to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to watch him. Their family was close, and he was a family man through and through. Wag and Yvonne divorced in 1971.
Later on, Wag found his life passion when he became Executive Director of Oklahoma Indian Opportunity. When the organization lost its funding, he decided to go to Michigan at the age of 36 to complete his masters degree in public administration at U of M. While there, Wag took a job in recruiting minority students for the University. During this time, he was also one of the originators of the Native American Student Association at U of M. In addition, Wag was recruited by the Grand Rapids Inter-tribal Council to become Executive Director. During this time, he was recognized as being one of the major contributors to local Native American social services. A position he held for 18 years. Wag then was named CEO of Grand Traverse Band of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, a position he held for two years. In 1994, Wag was diagnosed with bladder cancer and moved back to Grand Rapids to begin treatment.
Exciting days were on the horizon when Sandra Whiteman took a teaching job at the Indian Adult Learning Center in 1979. They became friends, and it was during the summer of 1989 when Wag accompanied Sandy on a visit to her mother's that the relationship became more. They were married on March 24, 1990, at Faith Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids. They honeymooned in Disney World. In Wag's own words, he always said that Sandy was the best thing that ever happened to him. After beating cancer in 1996, Wag was encouraged by Sandy to take a job as a cook with Grand Rapids Public Schools. He was the only male cook in the district and worked at several schools, including Palmer Elementary. All the students loved him, and he loved all of the students.
During his retirement years, Wag remained busy. He frequently babysat his great-grandchildren including his youngest, Annie Jo. Wag also traveled to family weddings, did some cross country skiing, and tailgated at U of M football games. He was someone who played sports and enjoyed bird hunting and training Labrador Retrievers along with his brother. Wag made Indian jewelry as an adult, cutting his own stones and silver work.
Life was not without times of trial for Wag. He was deeply saddened with the death of his son, Mark, in 2007. He was so proud to walk Mark’s daughter, Tiffany, down the aisle when she was married. Tragedy struck again when his grandson, Shane, died and his brother, Perry, died just two days apart in 2015.
With a journey that spanned times of great change in the world around him, James “Wag” Wheeler lived a life of purpose. He had a strong presence that drew others near with ease, and he wasn’t afraid to confront things when needed. A remarkable man, Wag will never be forgotten.
WHEELER, James “Wag,” Grand Rapids, MI, Age 82, passed away on June 1, 2017. Wag was born on February 11, 1935, in Sallisaw, OK to the late William and Alma (Moore) Wheeler. He was also preceded in death by his son, Mark Wheeler; grandson, Shane Wheeler; and brother, Perry Wheeler. Wag was one of the originators of the Native American Student Association at U of M. He was recognized as one of the major contributors to local Native American social services. Wag championed many Native American causes and needs, he was compassionate and accepting of all, but his family was his core. Wag is survived by his wife, Sandra (Whiteman) Wheeler; children, Randy (Jill) Wheeler of Edmond, OK and Cynda (Mike) Real of Sallisaw, OK; grandchildren, Natasha (Jason) Sodowsky, Matt (Ashley) Real, Tiffany (Kevin) Horan, and Ryan (Billi Jo) Wheeler; great grandchildren, Ashlyn, Madisen, & Jackson Horan, Logan and Landan Real, Colyn and Chloe Sodowsky, Tommy Lodenstein and Annie Jo Wheeler. Also surviving are his sisters, Nancy Wheeler, Charlotte Thomas and Janie (Leroy) Hensley all of Sallisaw, OK; many nieces and nephews; great nieces and nephews; and a host of friends. A memorial service will be held on Sunday, June 4th at 1 PM at Heritage Life Story Funeral Home, 2120 Lake Michigan Drive, NW. Friends may visit with his family on Saturday from 3-5 PM and Sunday from 12-1 PM. Memorials may be made to Humane Society of West Michigan. Please visit Wag's personal web page to learn more about his life story, leave a memory or condolence at www.lifestorynet.com.