Remembering Thoreau Farm Trust founding member Joe Wheeler (1926-2024)

Joe Wheeler was instrumental in saving Thoreau’s birthplace and establishing Thoreau Farm as a place of pilgrimage in Concord. Members of the Thoreau Farm Trust remember him as a forward-thinking, wise, and wonderful leader and friend.  
Collage of photographs showing Joe Wheeler in his element: at Thoreau Farm, with various colleagues, sharing its story, inside and out. Joe was a gem. Our own slice of living history. The success of Thoreau Farm’s 2005-06 campaign was largely due to his vast trove of Concord history, his personal stories and generosity, and his credibility throughout the  community. Warmth and wisdom were Joe’s trademarks. How fortunate that Joe was in the right place at the right time for saving Thoreau Farm. I will miss him dearly. — Molly Eberle
Joe was the sine qua non of our organization. His lived history in Concord and his steady support and wisdom were key during our early days and continued to be invaluable going forward. Joe was a quiet presence at our meetings and I will miss his dry Yankee humor. A life well lived which our board was lucky to share. — Nancy McJennett
Joe was a true statesman, unafraid to take up causes dear to him and important to us all. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to know him and share our commitment to the ideals of Henry Thoreau. You taught us and inspired us. We are the better for you, Joe, and fortunate that you returned to Concord after contributing so much beyond our town. — Court Booth

Joe was a prince in all the ways Thoreau especially admired, and he truly embodied Concord for me and so many others. I’ll always remember enjoying his reading during the 2004 marathon read of Walden–sounding with his New England accent exactly as I imagine Thoreau did. What a life well lived indeed! – Sandy Petrulionis

Joe marshalled his statesman skills and Thoreaulike love for Concord to save Henry’s birthplace in the very nick of time.  I regard that house as his monument too. — Ron Hoag

Joe, a faithful Board member for over 20 years, was typically ready with a thought or suggestion or inquiry that none of the rest of us had even considered — and that was always — always! — of import. Even over the last few years, his valuable contributions continued and will forever be missed. — Ken Lizotte
Obituary from the Concord Bridge:

Joseph Coolidge Wheeler, aged 97, died in his sleep at home in Concord, Massachusetts on Feb. 11, 2024 after a normal day.

Born in Concord November 21, 1926 to Caleb Henry Wheeler and Ruth Winifred (Robinson) Wheeler, Joe studied at Concord High School (1945), Bowdoin College (1948), the Graduate Institute of International Studies of Geneva, and Harvard’s Littauer School (MA/MPA 1951). A distinguished career in international development included posts in Jordan, Pakistan, Kenya, Paris and Geneva. Returning home to Concord after retirement, he was instrumental in passage of the Community Preservation Act and preservation of the Thoreau birth house.

Joe described boyhood on Thoreau Farm as idyllic. A brother’s $20 gift to attend a Quaker conference on World Federalism launched his international career at age 15. Becoming a World Federalist student leader, he organized national and international conferences promoting world governance and an end to war.

Joe worked for the United States foreign aid program (USAID), Peace Corps, United Nations Environmental Program, and Organization for Economic Development.  He was USAID Mission Director to Jordan (1965-1967) and Pakistan (1969-1977), and USAID Assistant Administrator from 1980 to 1982. Deeply committed to environmental issues, he organized the 1992 Earth Summit.

Joe met his first wife, Jean (Huleatt) Wheeler when both headed to Geneva to study. After losing Jean and a son in a 1969 car accident, he married M. Verona (Farness) Wheeler, beginning a joyful 44-year marriage, living in Islamabad, Washington, Nairobi, Paris and Geneva. Between adventures, they hosted innumerable diplomatic and family gatherings. His children and grandchildren will always remember visits to Paris and Kenya, fabulous holiday meals, and intensely competitive family croquet games.

Joe became blind in his eighties yet found ways to manage his blindness with remarkable grace, always describing his quality of life as very good. He leaves five children, Juliet Wheeler and Rachel Wheeler of Concord, MA, Deborah (Wheeler) Burk of Annandale, VA, Caleb Henry Wheeler of St. Louis, MO, and Margaret Jeanne Kane of Walnut Creek, CA, sons-in-law Kenneth Turkington and John Myers, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his four brothers, both wives, son Daniel Lincoln Wheeler and step-daughter, Marilee Kane.

A memorial service will be held in May. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Thoreau Farm Trust, PO Box 454, Concord, MA 01742.

Read the obituary on the Concord Bridge website here.


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