BY MARCY SHORTUSE- Legends never die, and our island has had our share of great ones. There are some names that stick out more than others, though, and Dee Wheeler’s is one of them. While she was born in Sarasota and grew up in Englewood, she married island boy Dumplin’ Wheeler in 1958 and – with the exception of a period of time when the couple lived in Virginia when he was in the Army – Boca Grande was truly her home. She started working with the Parks & Recreation in Englewood, following in her mother, Martha Shirling’s footsteps, who was on the Recreation Board for Sarasota County and worked as the teen director for the county’s program in Englewood. Since the early 1970s Dee had been working toward creating programs for the island’s youth, and she never stopped until the day she passed in May of 2017.
It was no real surprise, then, in the end of July that Dee’s daughters, Stephanie Wheeler Taylor and Brandy Wheeler Jenner, started writing letters to Lee County government to see if there was some way they could memorialize their mother in some way at the Boca Grande Community Center, where Dee was the director of the Boca Grande Community Center for decades.
In a letter written recently to Lee County Commissioner John Manning the women wrote:
I know you worked with our Mom, Dee Wheeler, while she was the director of the Boca Grande Community Center for 34+ years. Therefore, you must know how instrumental she was in creating lasting programs for the center and the community of Boca Grande. You may not realize that she actually began creating programs for the community when the center was still an abandoned building, often with hand me down toys and bake sale profits, and pushed for the residents of Boca Grande to have a community center in the first place. She loved all the people of Boca Grande, but you probably know she loved the kids the most. Almost every program she created started with bringing educational and fun programs and special events to the kids. These special events and programs grew, and many that she started are still in place today! The Spring Bike Parade, Easter Egg Hunt, Halloween Carnival and Summer Camp continue to thrive and become more popular each year.
Because of Mom’s numerous contributions to the Boca Grande Community Center (and the community as a whole), we would like to honor her memory by naming part of the Community Center after her. Her tireless energy and loyal dedication to the children’s programs was parallel to no other. We believe the entire center should be named the Dee Wheeler Community Center of Boca Grande but realize that might be a little much. Instead, we ask that the Multi-purpose room be renamed the Dee Wheeler Multi-purpose room, or something similar. We thought the Multi-purpose room would be most appropriate since that is where the children’s programs are facilitated most often, and many of the special events incorporate the multi-purpose room as well.
The Community Center’s multi-purpose room is a perfect place to commemorate Dee. It is the room that after-school activities are held in (another program that Dee created, along with Betsy Joiner), as well as a large amount of the Lee County Parks & Recreation summer camp programming. It would have been impossible for Dee to know that one day, her name could possibly be memorialized in such a way, but, starting on that day in 1970 when she asked the board of the Crowninshield Community House for $350 to create a children’s program, her dedication to the youth of Boca Grande would never stop.
While her primary focus was the children, she thought of island adults as well. Not long after she worked to create the old Arthur Houghton Jr. Reference Room in the Community Center, so children who lived on the island would have a quiet place and reference material to do their homework, Dee said, “I envision the day when all the parents, all the grownups, will use this place the way I do now. I know they will come to appreciate it.”
From the Halloween Carnival, the spring bike parade and the former Munchkins Preschool Program, to the Boca Bunch, Boca Buddies and much more, Dee was integral in bringing enjoyable, safe activities for our children. For years the Dee Wheeler Scholarship Program has helped children attend camp and after-school care when their parents didn’t have the money to allow them to attend otherwise. Even after her official retirement in 2008, she continued to volunteer for island children’s activities, until she passed away.
Brandy and Stephanie are very appreciative of such a tight-knit community full of people who loved their mother.
“We would like to thank the Boca Grande Community Center and the community for all the love and support you have shown for the summer camp each summer,” they said. “We are so thankful and proud to have our kids participate in the programs these past summers. It is dear to our hearts that our families have been able to continue Mom’s legacy, with her grandchildren participating in the programs she initiated and created many years ago.
“All who were fortunate enough to know Mom knew that her first love and priority was for the kids of our community. She worked tirelessly to create educational and fun programs for the kids of Boca Grande and would be humbled by the support the community has shown to keep these ideals going strong. Thank you so much Joe, DJ and other staff members for honoring Mom’s memory by continuing to provide quality programs all year round. In addition, thank you to the community for supporting the Dee Wheeler scholarship fund, which allows all children the opportunity to participate in the summer program in spite of any financial hardships the family may have. Mom wanted all kids included and would be so very grateful, as her family is, to those that continue to make this a reality. Boca Grande is and always has been a special place and we are blessed to be part of it!”
We will continue to keep you posted as to how this request to rename the multi-purpose room is going.