Story-tellers and the tales they weave only get better with age

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday November 22, 2015

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Back in 1994, while standing in line to pay for Christmas decorations at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, a book called Christmas in My Heart: A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Christmas Stories caught my eye.

The anthology was compiled and edited by Dr. Joe Wheeler, chair of the English Department at Maryland’s Columbia Union College in Takoma Park – now known as Washington Adventist University.

The blurb on the back said, “Here are Christmas stories for all generations, and each will tug at your heartstrings…In fact, only a certified Scrooge could possible read them dry-eyed.”

I like story-telling, so I picked up the book.  Reading the blurb on the back, I noticed that Joe Wheeler, born in 1936, was a resident of Arnold, Maryland.

Reading on, I found that Wheeler was also the founder and executive director of Zane Grey’s West Society and the publisher and editor of Zane Grey’s West, a magazine for fans of Zane Grey (1872-1939).

Grey – whose best-selling Riders of the Purple Sage is but one of 90 popular adventure novels that idealized the American frontier – is considered the founder of “the Western,” now a major genre in literature and the arts.

I thought, “Why is a guy with such deep interests in the American West living in the Annapolis area?”  Of course, at that time – and for 10 years, from 1993-2002 – I was in the same boat: I was living in Annapolis and commuting every week to my job in Denver, Colorado where I headed the Center for the

New West, a non-profit think tank focused on western economic development issues.

So, in early 1995, I wrote Wheeler a letter.  “I recently came across your Christmas book. On the back, I discovered you are a professor of English living in the East while serving as the founding executive director of Zane Grey’s West Society.  I am also one who roams the West but lives in the East.  Can we meet for lunch?”

Wheeler responded with an invitation to his Pines-on-the-Severn home to have lunch with him and his wife, a luncheon that marked the beginning of a long relationship – 20 years and counting.

It was during a tour of his home that I first viewed his superlative collection of vintage paperback originals – including the first modern paperbacks published in the UK by Penguin in 1935 and in the US by Pocket Books in 1938.  The early success of what some called “dime novels” was stirred by titles such as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and The Good Earth by Pearl Buck.

As we talked Wheeler emphasized his desire to retire from teaching.  He wanted to move to the West, continue to serve the legacy of Zane Grey, and devote full time to writing and to editing annual volumes of Christmas in My Heart and other anthologies with stories of mothers, fathers, grandparents and historic figures, such as Abraham Lincoln.

“That sounds like a good idea,” I said. “So why don’t you do it?”

Wheeler then shared that he had turned down several opportunities to retire to the West because offers didn’t include health insurance.

I thought, here’s an opportunity for the Center for the New West to attract a large talent, so a few weeks later I invited Wheeler to serve as senior fellow for Western Studies. The offer included an office in Denver’s World Trade Center – and health insurance.  He accepted and moved to Colorado at the end of the 1996 spring semester, marking his transition to a new life.

In the meantime, Dr. James Dobson – founder and CEO of Focus on the Family and host of a popular, nationally-syndicated, daily radio program – had taken a keen interest in the 1994 volume of Christmas in My Heart, the volume I had just read.

First Dobson selected one of his stories to read on his radio program.  Later, he included the story in his Christmas mailing to more than 3 million supporters of Focus on the Family.

Wheeler said, “A Dobson aide told me, ‘If Dr. Dobson really uses you, your life will never be the same again.'” Truer words were never spoken.

This past week, Joe Wheeler sent me Volume 24 of Christmas in My Heart.  Attached to Volume 24 was a handwritten note – there is always a handwritten note.

This year it was addressed to “Grandma” and “Grandpa,” revealing that Joe and Connie – his wife of 56 years, a full partner in their publishing enterprise and an accomplished quilter – follow our Facebook postings.

The Wheelers now live in Conifer, Colorado, located in the mountains to the south and west of Denver.   They have two adult children, including a daughter who lives in Annapolis, and two grandchildren.

Over the course of his career, Wheeler has published 91 books, 76 of which have been story anthologies, leading one reviewer to call him “a story archeologist.”  He has published with 16 publishing houses with book sales exceeding 1.5 million copies.

Barnes & Noble recently honored Wheeler with a special reprint of his Abraham Lincoln: Man of Faith and Courage, published by Howard/Simon & Schuster.  Last August the book was stocked in the bargain section of all 600 plus stores.

Christmas in My Heart is now the longest-running Christmas story series in America, and Zane Grey’s West Society is still active, though, according to Wheeler, “It struggles, with so many readers growing older.”

The Wheelers visit the Annapolis area at least once a year, which always includes a book signing event.  This year’s book signing will be on November 27 and 29 at the Living Well bookstore in Silver Spring.

Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning penned the memorable poem that begins: “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be, / The last of life, for which the first was made.”

“The best is yet to be…” certainly describes the lives of Joe and Connie Wheeler as they move through bonus years marked by exceptional creative success as curators of wonderful and inspiring stories of Americana.

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