Pjstar: Forgive Tim and Diana Wheeler if they sometimes slip and refer to President Obama by his first name. After all, the Wheelers are quite possibly the only townsfolk in Alpha to know the leader of the free world on a first-name basis.
“Barack is coming to Alpha!” Tim Wheeler, 53, crowed with a chuckle Tuesday at Caterpillar Inc.’s Building HH, where he is a section manager.
Not that the Wheelers would be so informal Wednesday, when there’s a good chance – yet again – that they’ll get a few minutes to chat with their presidential pal. “We knew him before he was president,” Diane Wheeler, 50, said from Alpha. “We got in the habit of calling him by his first name. Out of respect, now it’s ‘Mister President.'”
Mind you, the Wheelers are no heavy-hitting politicos or deep-pocket contributors. They’re just workaday people who just happen to have the ear of the most powerful man on the planet. And when Obama saunters into the Country Corners Farm Market, the Wheelers stand the best chance of the Alpha’s 671 residents for a presidential one-on-one. It’s a special relationship, stretching from a hardscrabble farming burg to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “We consider him a friend,” Diane Wheeler said.
The connection comes via son Marcus Wheeler, who in 2004 was a 19-year-old in dire need of a liver transplant. At the time, Tim Wheeler faced the loss of his 28-year job at Butler Manufacturing, which would leave Galesburg the next year. No job meant no insurance.
Meanwhile, Obama, then a state senator from Chicago, was campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat. On May 15 of that year, he made an unplanned stop at Galesburg’s Labor Temple, to talk with 25 local labor leaders. One was Wheeler, of United Steelworkers Local 2629.
When he got a chance with Obama, Wheeler sobbed as he told of his son’s need of a second transplant and expensive drugs. Obama promised to seek help via Medicare.
Two months later, die-hard Democrats Tim and Diana Wheeler flipped on their TV to see Obama address the Democratic National Convention, as John Kerry’s keynote speaker. A riveting speech bolstered his national gravitas, in part with the heartfelt plea, “We have more work to do. More work to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs. … More to do for the father that I met who was losing his job and choking back the tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits that he counted on.”
Stunned to tears, the Wheelers vowed to support Obama the next week at a Kewanee rally. Tim Wheeler approached Obama, who immediately said, “I want you to know: Every day I say a prayer for Marcus.” Thereafter, Obama would use the Wheeler story on the stump. Meanwhile, Tim Wheeler got a new job, at Cat, where insurance covered another two liver transplants for his son. In 2006, Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” mentioned Galesburg several times, including the value of on-the-road encounters with people like the Wheelers: “Those were the stories you missed on a private jet at 40,000 feet.”
Later, they there were more meet-ups. When Marcus had treatment at the University of Chicago Hospitals, his dad met Michelle Obama in a hallway. She said her husband often prayed for the family. Later, as a U.S. senator, Obama gave a speech at the University of Illinois. Marcus Wheeler, en route to a bachelor’s degree in math, got a front-row seat. To start the speech, Obama mouthed, “Hi, Marcus.”
And in 2009, before Obama toured Cat here, Tim Wheeler was picked to join 200 workers to meet with Obama. Through the throng, the president summoned Wheeler for a few personal words for the first time since inauguration.
“How ya doing?” Wheeler asked.
“Oh,” Obama said with a grin, “I’ve been kinda busy these days.” ….