The Loss of a Student Becomes a Force for Good

By Kelley Christensen | Published

John Wheeler’s untimely death provides impetus to educate youth, spread word of professions in forestry and natural resource management.

A program to educate high schoolers about professions in forestry and natural resource management. A playground in the woods. A white oak to provide a shady spot for students to sit. All of these were done in honor of John Wheeler.

Wheeler was a fourth-year student at Michigan Technological University when he was killed in a car accident in November 2016. He had aspired to become a forester and was cherished by family, friends and faculty alike.

Terry Sharik, dean of the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Sciences, reached out to the faculty who had John in their fall 2016 courses and asked that they turn in John’s final grades, enabling Michigan Tech to posthumously award him his bachelor of science degree.

“He was extremely proactive and intelligent as a student. He was a real leader in our group,” says Matthew Kelly, an assistant professor of natural resource management, who had John in several courses, including senior capstone. “His peers talked at our memorial about his fieldwork; he was always trying to do it faster, more efficiently and more effectively.”

Kids in the Woods

Just as John pushed himself, the SFRES and wider communities wanted to do more to honor John’s memory and commitment to his future profession.

Sharing his love of the woods was a passion, and John made time to reach out to students at Houghton High School to encourage them to pursue a degree from SFRES and to work in an after-school program at Houghton Elementary.

To continue John’s mission to share the possibility of a career in forestry or environmental sciences, shortly after his death the John H.F. Wheeler Memorial Fund project was established on Superior Ideas, a crowdfunding website operated by Michigan Tech, including a $5,000 match from SFRES.

To date, the fund is 35 percent funded and has raised $12,080. The project has a $35,000 goal, which will create an endowed fund that will provide financial awards to upper-division undergraduate students in SFRES. Award recipients will serve as ambassadors to local and regional high schools to talk about natural resource careers and share their experiences in SFRES.

“It’s for the college kids to go to the high school and talk about [careers in forestry]. That was John’s idea,” says Bob Wheeler, John’s father. “He said that there should be more connection for natural resource education in the high school.”

John Wheeler journaling in the woods
John Wheeler loved being in the woods, and enjoyed sharing that passion with others. Image Credit: Dan Haskell

Bob Wheeler has had a hand in establishing a playground and classroom in a wooded area on the Houghton Elementary School grounds, a project he started with John to get kids off their mobile devices and into nature. Initial funding came from a Go-Fund-Me campaign started by Alex Busov, which was very well supported by family, friends and the community at large, for medical and other expenses. In addition to the outdoor learning center, money from the fund also goes toward the purchase of grade level-appropriate books about natural resources for children, both individually and in the classroom.

"I want to have kids feel comfortable to go run around in the woods. Learn about critters and plants, put their phone away for a little bit and see this can be fun. Now outdoor time is structured. The way it should be: Go play, kid, go explore, go figure it out yourself." Bob Wheeler

Kelly says that this is just another way John’s legacy impacts the community. Having goals to work toward helped John’s peers to process their grief at his loss.

“Everyone understood John a bit better when we met his family” Kelly says. “When Bob had ideas about these different projects, it did give a lot of us some purpose and things to work on. Involvement of the parents was a factor, a positive one.”

Numerous community members turned out to help clear brush from the area at Houghton Elementary School. Another day of service to continue improving the play area and classroom is planned and will be announced in the future. The area includes an amphitheater-type classroom with seating and trails that wind through the trees. It will soon include informational signage about local tree and bird species.

The John Wheeler Outdoor Learning Center is already having an impact. During a recent visit, three young girls ran up to the fence that rings the Houghton Elementary School playground to shout “Thank you, Mr. Wheeler!” through the chainlink, after Bob took their class through the wooded area.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.

Last Modified 11:45 a.m. June, 18 2018