Commissioner, former sheriff retires
By Jessica Tuggle
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY -- A slightly damp, white handkerchief made its appearance more than once last week during the county commission meeting where Commissioner Gary Wheeler said his goodbyes.
During the Nov. 6 meeting, fellow commissioners and members of the public alternately roasted and commended, with both laughter and tears, the retiring Mr. Wheeler on his 22 years of public service in Indian River County.
Mr. Wheeler served as Indian River County sheriff from 1992-2000, county commissioner from 1986-92 and again from 2004-12. His successor, Tim Zorc, will officially take office on Nov. 20.
Mr. Wheeler announced his intent to retire from public office earlier this year and plans to move to Jonesborough, Tenn., by the end of the year.
Former state Rep. Ralph Poppell has had a long- working and personal relationship with Mr. Wheeler and spoke highly of him during the meeting, literally.
In one of the more humorous, yet nonetheless heartfelt, speeches and thanks, Mr. Poppell stood on a stool to congratulate Mr. Wheeler on his retirement and thank him for his service.
Drawing lots of laughs for his prop and his desire to finally look Mr. Wheeler in the eye, Mr. Poppell's comments were perfectly aligned with what many other speakers said about his integrity, open-mindedness and fairness.
"I've always found Gary to be the kind of guy that even if we disagreed, it never interfered with whatever else we needed to do," Mr. Poppell said.
His professional manner on the dais and commitment to hearing differing sides of an issue were frequently mentioned.
Commissioner Davis said while they may not have always been on the same side of a policy decision, his decisions to engage in discussions and share his wisdom made for a wonderful ride on the commission. He also thanked Mr. Wheeler's family, specifically his wife, Donna, for their sacrifices while Mr. Wheeler was in politics.
"Thank you for sharing your husband with Indian River County for the last 22 years, Commissioner Davis said.
Commissioner Peter O'Bryan said Mr. Wheeler set the standard when it comes to conducting business meetings and allowing public input.
Commissioner O'Bryan read a long list of Mr. Wheeler's involvements in the community, starting with his old doughnut shop, Tasty-O, and his accomplishments as sheriff.
Mr. Wheeler is credited with starting the citizens academy, a class for the public to learn more about the operations of the sheriff's office. To date, there have been 39 classes held with 1,950 residents participating.
County administrator Joe Baird called Mr. Wheeler, "one of the best county commissioners I have ever seen in my career."
Carol Johnson, Indian River School Board member, called Mr. Wheeler a "strong, gentle man" and said his impact on the community will be long lasting.
Penny Chandler, director of the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce, said Mr. Wheeler's help and influence in retaining Piper Aircraft was one of the things the chamber will, and the community should, always be grateful to him for.
Hundreds of jobs stayed in Indian River County, in part, because of his efforts to help keep Piper, she said.
Mr. Wheeler humbly thanked all of those who spoke and those who helped him behind the scenes during the years. Though he has been preparing to leave for some time, now that the time was actually here, it was very difficult, he said.
Being trusted by so many people to carry out the business of the county is overwhelming and he will miss this place that he has called home for 40 years.
"It's a whole lot easier to take criticism than compliments," Mr. Wheeler said.
He likened the sendoff accolades to what he has imagined people saying at his funeral, earning some laughs.
He thanked the sitting commissioners for their cooperation and discourse during his most recent terms.
"This has been overall the best board I've been on," Mr. Wheeler said.