Veteran dying of cancer gets to see son teach at Pitt
As time and the ravages of lung cancer closed in on Jeffrey Raymond Wheeler, he came to regret he had never seen his eldest son, Jeff, the first member of the family to earn a college degree, teach at the University of Pittsburgh.
Wheeler, 68, a retired coal miner and Vietnam veteran from Wheeling, W.Va., voiced his regrets several weeks ago after doctors told him he was too weak for chemotherapy and that it would only be “a matter of time.”
“I was visiting him at the VA facility in Oakland four or five weeks ago. We knew it was bad then, but we still thought he might be able to get chemo,” the younger Wheeler said. That afternoon, his father said softly, ‘I’d like to see you teach some time, son.’ ”
Other than that, Wheeler, a Marine Corps veteran who turned 18 in 1965 in Vietnam, simply wanted to go home to his wife, Ruth. Doctors granted that wish.
Monday, he realized his second wish.
Sitting quietly in a wheelchair at the back of a Pitt lecture hall, the pale, thin man in a red Marine Corps cap listened intently, nodding occasionally and cupping his chin in his hand, as his middle-aged son held forth on the world of linear algebra and matrices in front of a room full of dutiful students.
“He’s a professor,” Wheeler said softly, as his namesake lectured on the verities of vectors and theorems.
Later, the elder Wheeler looked on in awe as James Fausnaught, 66, of Gilpin, a fellow Vietnam era veteran who is taking his son’s class, explained the complex homework assignment that took up the bulk of his weekend.
Jeffrey Paul Wheeler of Marshall, who joined the faculty at Pitt in 2008 after earning his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Memphis, was surprised when his father asked to see him teach.
With the former coal miner growing ever weaker, the 46-year-old father of three reached out to family, friends and colleagues at Pitt.
His younger brother, David, 44, of Wheeling, agreed to drive their father and mother to Oakland.
Officials at Pitt’s Veterans Service Center, just up the hall from Wheeler’s classroom, got into the act, planning a reception to honor the ailing veteran. Wheeler’s fellow faculty members chipped in with refreshments.
“This was a community effort. The stars aligned for everything,” the math instructor said, as his friends and family mingled at the reception Monday afternoon after his class.
For Ryan Ahl, director of Pitt’s Veterans Service Center, it was an opportunity to finally give the elder Wheeler the kind of recognition few Vietnam vets received when they returned from the war in Southeast Asia.
More than 58,000 of the 3.4 million American service members who deployed to Vietnam between 1964 and 1975 died there. And the ranks of survivors like Wheeler are growing thinner every day as illness and age take a toll.
Recognizing the service of Sgt. Jeffrey Wheeler, Ahl presented him with a plaque, complete with Pitt seals, honoring his service and handed him a pair of commemorative military coins from local veterans groups.
“This was very nice,” the elder Wheeler said softly, cradling the plaque in his lap.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].