Entered By: QI Staff
October 5, 2012
John Thomas Wheeler — Quota International of Northside Atlanta — GA, U.S.A.
Date of Death: September 13, 2012
John Thomas Wheeler, born in Tuscaloosa, AL, led a remarkable life. His many accomplishments were not for himself, but for others. His keen mind, curiosity, and determination allowed him to pursue a wide range of interests. Profoundly deaf since the age of eighteen months, John Thomas “Tommy” Wheeler did not let his dreams of space and flight die. His love of flying was evidenced throughout his life. His mathematical mind served to undergird all his pursuits in flight and technology.
At the age of fourteen, he began flying lessons; and at the age of sixteen, he began solo flights. The Tuscaloosa News carried the story of his solo with the headline “Deaf Boy Flies Solo.” John Thomas Wheeler attended the Talladega School for the Deaf, Saint John’s Catholic School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and graduated from Tuscaloosa High School. While a student in Tuscaloosa High School, John Thomas was recognized as one of the THS Black Bears’ outstanding running backs. Although he was offered a football scholarship to the University of Alabama, Tommy declined. His deafness would require him to focus strictly on his studies.
After earning his BS in aeronautical engineering in 1955, Tommy married his high school sweetheart, Margaret Lowrey. The young couple moved to Fort Worth, TX, where Tommy began his work as an aerodynamicist at General Dynamics as he continued his studies in aerospace engineering. In 1960, Tommy became the first deaf aerospace engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
After completing his master’s degree in aerospace engineering, Tommy continued his post-graduate work at UAH, SMU, and UCLA. During his career at NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, Tommy Wheeler was part of the engineering team responsible for the development of the Mercury and Saturn programs. He was one of the pioneers in the use of virtual reality in astronaut training programs. One of his sadder duties was to be part of the investigative team analyzing the causes of the Challenger tragedy in January, 1986. After thirty-eight years at NASA, John Thomas retired to care for his wife, who died in March, 1998.
While at NASA, Tommy instituted Space Camp for the Deaf. Working with Space Camp administrators, Tommy was able to develop a substantive math and science program for deaf children. At the same time, as President of the Alabama Association of the Deaf, he was flying throughout Alabama to develop local deaf organizations. Working with the Alabama Governor and state legislators, Tommy was able to see legislation enacted to benefit the deaf. Many of his closest and dearest friends are those in the deaf community. Tommy remained an advocate for the deaf throughout his life.
As a Major in the Civil Air Patrol, Tommy continued to work with the CAP as well as the Alabama Association for the Deaf. As a loving family man, Tommy was always there for his two daughters and his grandchildren. His greatest pride was in family, not in his personal achievements. He was truly a Godly man who held the love of God and his quiet communion with God to be uppermost in his life. Many who came to know Tommy have stated that he was one of the best men that they had known.
In the summer of 2000, John Thomas Wheeler married Margaret Stallworth Owens, a childhood friend and former classmate. Tommy and Margaret shared a home in Dunwoody, Georgia, where Tommy was active in Quota International of Northside Atlanta, an international service organization which has special emphasis on serving the deaf. Tommy remained a member of many service organizations: CAP, NAD, U of A National Alumni Association, NARFE, Quota Club, and the Elks.
During his long struggle with multiple illnesses, Tommy never wavered in his strong confidence in his doctors and in their understanding of him and his illnesses.
John Thomas Wheeler was preceded in death by his parents John Orion Wheeler and Doris Allie Hubbard Wheeler; his first wife and the mother of his children, Margaret Lowrey Wheeler, and grandson Robert Walker Bibb. Survivors include his wife of twelve years, Margaret Stallworth Owens Wheeler; two loving daughters, Margaret Ann Bibb and husband Alan; Teresa Elaine Baker and husband Larry; two caring stepdaughters, Donna Owens and husband Richard Barsky, and Krista Owens; his nine remaining grandchildren, Dr. John Thomas McCarty and wife Frances; Jesse Lee McCarty; Preston Alan Bibb; Tyler Bramham Bibb and wife Megan; Blake Edward Talley; Anna Lauren Talley; Andrew Thomas Talley; Richard Kolton Baker; and Kaytlynn Diane Baker; two great grandchildren, Maddie and Mare’t Bibb; sister Ann Vann, nieces, and nephews; brother-in-law John R. Stallworth and sister-in-law Dr. Dorothy S. Rutledge.
A memorial service will be held in Dunwoody, Georgia, on Saturday, October 6, 2012, at 11:00 AM at Dunwoody Baptist Church in the chapel. Funeral services were held Sunday, September 16, at 2:00 PM at the Tuscaloosa Memorial Chapel at Memorial Park on the old Birmingham Highway, with visitation from 1:00 – 2:00 PM.
For those wishing to send flowers, the family requests that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made in John Thomas Wheeler’s memory to The Alabama School for the Deaf, 205 E South Street, Talladega, Al 35160, http://www.aidb.org