Mad River Union
MCKINLEYVILLE – Community leader George Wheeler, who championed for a skate park, solar power and pesticide-free parks in McKinleyville, died early this morning, Feb. 5 surrounded by family. He was 70 years old.
Wheeler died from diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. “It’s in my bones, it’s in my brain,” Wheeler said during an interview a week ago, Jan. 29. The McKinleyville resident said this was his sixth and final battle with cancer. His first bout was in 2000.
“This old boy is checking out,” Wheeler said as he sat in his living room, his dog Violet sprawled on the floor nearby, a fire flickering in a wood stove. “It could be a few days, it could be a few weeks.”
Although facing the end of his life, Wheeler didn’t wallow in self pity. He was upbeat, gregarious and enthusiastic about projects he was working on to improve McKinleyville. “Yeah, why not,” he said about his continued activism.
Wheeler had just taken photos of potholes on Ocean Drive and had emailed them to Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone in hopes that the Public Works would remedy the situation. He had recently worked with friend Johnny Calkins to help Arcata House lease a vacant home in the neighborhood to house a family in need. “I made that happen,” said Wheeler, who wanted to focus his final interview on his public service. He was brimming with ideas, and eager to talk about ways to improve McKinleyville.
Not long ago, he noticed a fence down on School Road and called McKinleyville Community Services District Manager Greg Orsini about the situation. “The next day the boys were out fixing it,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler was twice elected to the MCSD, first in November 2013, and again in November 2018. But while Wheeler was running for his second term, the cancer returned, forcing him to resign before he could be sworn in.
At the time, Wheeler said that serving on the board “has been one of the more educational and rewarding endeavors in my life. It is with great regret that I am unable to continue.”
During the Jan. 29 interview, Wheeler said “I absolutely love being a director” because of “the ability to have a vote – one of five – on things I consider important for McKinleyville.”
“I came too late to public service,” Wheeler said. “I wish I had discovered the MCSD 20 years ago, 30 years ago.”
While running for the MCSD in the fall of 2018, Wheeler wrote “The job of director pays the fantastic salary of $125/month. Dividing by the hours invested and the nice suits for public occasions… I’ve lost money, but gained a sense of community that was lacking in my life, during the years it was all about work, bills, kids, more work and more bills. It sits well with me that my service to this community, in a small way, repays the debt for providing a wonderful place to raise five kids. It’s been a great ride.”
Wheeler, who grew up surfing in Southern California, was passionate about the need for a skate park in McKinleyville, a project that may come to fruition later this year. He also pushed for the district to install solar panels, another project that’s in the works. Wheeler said he was also proud of the district’s integrated pest management plan, which helps keep McKinleyville parks pesticide free.
Wheeler said he wanted the MCSD to develop river-front property it owns near North Bank Road and Azalea Avenue with a trail, so families can hang out on the Mad River, go swimming and fish.
Wheeler ran for office as a representative of people “from the folding chairs,” a reference to the audience chairs at the monthly MCSD board meetings. Wheeler said one of the most important things he learned when he served on the board was the importance of a slow, deliberative process.
“Government moves slow, but it should move slow,” Wheeler said. “Snap, off-the-cuff solutions are never thought through.”
Reflecting on his life, Wheeler said “I have no complaints at all. I’ve had a great life and hopefully a smooth exit.”
In a text message sent at 5:48 a.m. this morning, Feb. 5, Jennifer Wheeler announced her husband’s death: “Our beloved George passed away a few hours ago. He was with family and it went as beautifully and with as much love as possible.”
In the Jan. 29 interview, George Wheeler spoke about the stages of grief, mentioning denial, bargaining and depression.
“Jennifer and I have worked through that, and I think we’re in acceptance,” he said.
Wheeler was born in La Jolla on July 17, 1949 and graduated from Mount Miguel High School in 1967. He joined the U.S. Marines and served “two years, one month and four days,” Wheeler said. He served in Vietnam and saw combat, a topic he preferred not to discuss.
Wheeler worked for the Del Mar Post Office in Southern California from 1969 to 1984. Wheeler then decided to pursue higher education.
“I came to Humboldt in 1985 and fell in love with this place,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler studied business, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. He worked as an associate professor at Humboldt State. He was a systems analyst and said he was one of the first professors at HSU with his own website. Wheeler also worked in construction, building and repairing homes throughout Humboldt County. He called himself a handyman.
Wheeler is survived by his wife Jennifer, five children and three grandchildren.
“That’s what I’m proudest of. When I look back on my life, it’s not my work, it’s my kids. That’s the most important thing I’ve done,” Wheeler said.
“I have no complaints. God’s been good to me,” Wheeler said.