John Thomas Wheeler
Died September 13, 2012
John Thomas Wheeler, 82, of Atlanta, formally of Tuscaloosa, died Sept. 13, 2012. He was born in Tuscaloosa and led a remarkable life. His many accomplishments were not for himself, but for others. His keen mind, curiosity, and determination allowed him to pursue a wide range of interests. Profoundly deaf since the age of 18 months, John Thomas “Tommy” Wheeler did not let his dreams of space and flight die. His love of flying was evidenced throughout his life. His mathematical mind served to undergird all his pursuits in flight and technology.
At 14, he began flying lessons and at 16, he began solo flights. The Tuscaloosa News carried the story of his solo flight with the headline, “Deaf Boy Flies Solo.” He attended the Talladega School for the Deaf, St. John’s Catholic School in Tuscaloosa, and graduated from Tuscaloosa High School. While a student at Tuscaloosa High School, he was recognized as one of the THS Black Bears’ outstanding running backs. Although he was offered a football scholarship to the University of Alabama, Tommy declined. His deafness would require him to focus strictly on his studies.
After earning his B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering in 1955, Tommy married his high school sweetheart, Margaret Lowrey. The young couple moved to Fort Worth, TX where Tommy began his work as an aerodynamicist at General Dynamics while continuing his studies in aerospace engineering. In 1960, Tommy became the first deaf aerospace engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
After completing his M.S. in Aerospace Engineering, Tommy continued his post-graduate work at UAH, SMU, and UCLA. He was part of the engineering team responsible for the development of the Mercury and Saturn programs during his career with NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. He was one of the pioneers in the use of virtual reality in astronaut training programs. One of the tragic duties of his career was as part of the investigative team analyzing the causes of the Challenger tragedy in January 1986. After 38 years at NASA, John Thomas retired to care for his wife who died in March 1998.
While at NASA, Tommy instituted the Space Camp for the Deaf. Tommy was able to develop a substantial math and science program for deaf children. As president of the Alabama Association of the Deaf, he was flying throughout Alabama to develop organizations for the deaf. Tommy was able to see legislation enacted to benefit the deaf while working with the Alabama governor and state legislatures. Many of his closest and dearest friends are those in the deaf community. Tommy remained an advocate for the deaf throughout his life.
Tommy worked as a major for the Civil Air Patrol while continuing his work with the Alabama Association for the Deaf. He was a loving family man and was always there for his two daughters and grandchildren. His greatest pride was in his family and not in his personal achievements. He was truly a godly man who held the love of God and his quiet communion with God to be upmost in his life. Many who came to know Tommy have stated that he was one of the best men that they had known.
In the summer of 2000, John Thomas Wheeler married Margaret Stallworth Owens, a childhood friend and former classmate. Tommy and Margaret shared a home in Dunwoody, GA where Tommy was active in Quota International of Northside Atlanta, an international service organization which has special emphasis on serving the deaf. Tommy remained a member of many service organizations including: CAP, NAD, University of Alabama National Alumni Association, NARFE, Quota Club, and the Elks.
During his long struggle with multiple illnesses, Tommy never wavered in the strong confidence in his doctors and in their understanding of him and his illnesses.
He was preceded in death by his parents, John Orion Wheeler and Doris Allie Hubbard Wheeler; his first wife and the mother of his children, Margaret Lowrey Wheeler; and grandson, Robert Walker Bibb.
Survivors include his wife of 12 years, Margaret Stallworth Owens Wheeler; two loving daughters, Margaret Ann Bibb and husband Alan, and Teresa Elaine Baker and husband Larry; two caring stepdaughters, Donna Owens and husband Richard Barsky, and Krista Owens; his nine remaining grandchildren, Dr. John Thomas McCarty and wife Frances, Jesse Lee McCarty, Preston Alan Bibb, Tyler Bramham Bibb and wife Megan, Blake Edward Talley, Anna Lauren Talley, Andrew Thomas Talley, Richard Kolton Baker, and Kaytlynn Diane Baker; two great-grandchildren, Maddie and Mare’t Bibb; sister, Ann Vann; nieces, and nephews.
Services will be 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, at Tuscaloosa Memorial Chapel Funeral Home. Burial will follow in Tuscaloosa Memorial Park with Tuscaloosa Memorial Chapel Funeral Home directing. Visitation will be one hour prior to services at the funeral home. A memorial service will be held in Atlanta at a later date.
For those wishing to send flowers, the family requests that in lieu of flowers contributions be made in John Thomas Wheeler’s memory to The Alabama School for the Deaf, 205 E South St., Talladega, AL 35160, http://www.aidb.org .
Published in The Huntsville Times from September 14 to September 15, 2012