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Maverick Kansas City mayor and Missouri legislator Charles Wheeler dies at 96

Wheeler bday.jpg
Wheeler family
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Former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler listening to a discussion during his term as a state senator in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Wheeler was Kansas City mayor for two terms, from 1971 to 1979, and was known as a feisty, forceful, decisive leader who projected a populist, people-oriented persona.

Charles B. Wheeler, a doctor and maverick mayor who presided over one of the biggest public building booms in Kansas City history, died at Brookdale Senior Living Center in Overland Park on Tuesday. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by family members and friends. The cause of death could not be learned.

Wheeler was Kansas City mayor for two terms, from 1971 to 1979, and was known as a feisty, forceful, decisive leader who projected a populist, people-oriented persona. During his tenure, Kansas City International Airport opened, and he also helped spearhead development of Kemper Arena, the Bartle Hall convention center and the University of Missouri-Kansas City medical school at Hospital Hill.

One of his two daughters, Nina Wheeler Yoakum, said Wheeler was a "happy camper" over the last several weeks.

"People he’d known all his life were coming to tell him they loved him and he'd tell them he loved them back. He got to die with grace and dignity and it meant so much to all of us for him to go that way. He had a lot of happiness in his life but a lot of sadness, too. He lost three sons and his wife, just before their 70th wedding anniversary.”

In a July 2019 interview with KCUR, Wheeler said the highlight of his mayoral career was bringing the 1976 Republican National Convention to Kansas City.

“The Republican National Convention was definitely the moment that Kansas City was launched like it hadn’t been for years — well since Truman, that is the comparison,” Wheeler said. “The media loved it. We were the media center of America.”

Wheeler said Kansas City had hosted a Democratic mid-term convention in 1974 that was so successful it persuaded the Republicans to host their presidential convention in Kansas City two years later. Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford competed for delegate voters. Ford finally won out and chose Kansan Bob Dole as his running mate.

Wheeler said another milestone in his life was helping to persuade the state legislature and state officials to establish a new medical school in Kansas City.

“I loved developing Hospital Hill,” Wheeler recalled. “We needed a school like they had in Columbia and St. Louis. We were getting shortchanged by the state of Missouri.”

Construction of the medical school began in 1972 on land contributed by Kansas City. The groundbreaking for the nearby Truman Medical Center came in 1973.

Charles B. Wheeler was born in Kansas City on Aug. 10, 1926, and graduated from Westport High School in 1942.

After graduating from medical school at the University of Kansas, Wheeler served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

He spent much of his early career as a forensic pathologist, founded Wheeler Medical Laboratories in 1963 and taught at KU Medical School and the UMKC School of Medicine.

His public service career began when he became Jackson County coroner in 1965. He served until January 1967, when he was elected as judge of the Western District of Jackson County, serving two terms until January 1971. He ran for presiding judge in 1970, but after losing to George Lehr in the August Democratic primary, he decided to run for the open Kansas City mayoral seat in 1971.

“The night he (Lehr) whipped me I announced I was going to run for mayor because I was out of work,” Wheeler recalled in his KCUR interview.

Wheeler defeated Dutton Brookfield for mayor in the March 30, 1971, election and assumed office on May 1, 1971. He was elected to a second term in 1975.

Wheeler described the city during that time as a “beehive of activity,” with the opening of KCI in 1972, the opening of Kemper Arena in 1974 and the completion of the Bartle Hall convention and exhibition space in 1976. During the 1970s, the city also saw the development of Worlds of Fun, Crown Center and the Truman Sports Complex.

A 2002 article in Ingram’s magazine observed, “Many regard this as the last golden age of Kansas City.”

One other significant cultural event helped put Kansas City on the map while Wheeler was mayor. In October 1978, the internationally-renowned artist Christo created a 2.5-mile long piece of art entitled “Wrapped Walk Ways” in Loose Park. The installation remained in place for about two weeks and Wheeler presented Christo and his partner Jeanne-Claude with the key to the city.

Wheeler ran for a third term in 1979, but friction with the firefighters’ union and the public’s desire for change after eight years led voters in a different direction. He was defeated by the man who had been his second-in-command on the city council, Mayor Pro Tem Dick Berkley. Wheeler ran against Berkley in 1983 but lost. But he bore no grudges and said that he and Berkley remained friends for decades.

After leaving the mayor’s office, Wheeler devoted his time to running his pathology laboratory, but he never lost his passion for politics. He ran for the Missouri 10th District Senate seat and won, serving one term from 2003 to 2007. He did not seek re-election and was succeeded by Jolie Justus.

Justus said Wheeler vigorously represented Kansas City while in the state legislature, and he encouraged her to have the confidence to do the same.

“I think the big thing that Sen. Wheeler said to me was just to really speak my mind, to not be quiet,” Justus said. “The other thing he was always adamant about was just making sure that you are the smartest person in the room. And he, I think, always was the smartest person in the room.”

Mike Burke, a Kansas City lawyer who also served on the city council and ran against Wheeler in the race for mayor in 2011, says Wheeler infused everything he did with humor, intelligence and a love for his hometown.

“He loved devoting his lifetime to public service,” Burke said. “He truly was a man for all seasons because he had a very inquisitive mind, and it was always searching for something new and exciting.”

At the age of 79 in 2006, he ran for Jackson County Executive and was defeated by Mike Sanders. He ran for Missouri State Treasurer in 2008 and, at the age of 89, for Missouri governor in 2016. He placed third in the Democratic primary.

“Anybody who dabbles in politics walks away most of the time because it’s such hard work,” Wheeler told KCUR. “I personally thrive on that and I loved it.”

He said he loved being out and about in the community, and campaigning.

“I have found that meeting people is the thing that keeps me young,” he said when he was 93, telling friends he was contemplating running for president.

Wheeler was delighted in early July 2019 to join the crowds of people watching the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and other military acrobatic performances at Kansas City’s downtown airport, which bears his name.

“I had a ball when we had those air shows at Wheeler Airport this past week,” he said. “I was there all three days. I’m an old Navy man.”

Survivors include his daughters, Marion Wheeler of Kansas City and Nina Wheeler Yoakum of Orlando, Florida. He was predeceased by his wife, Marjorie Martin Wheeler, and three sons, Mark Wheeler, Gordon Wheeler and Graham Wheeler.

A memorial service will be held Nov. 5 at 4 p.m. at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The service is open to the public.

Senior editor and reporter Dan Margolies contributed to this story.

Updated: October 26, 2022 at 1:10 PM CDT
This story has been updated with additional information and comments from one of Wheeler's daughters.
Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.
As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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