Edward T. Wheeler (Sheila Wheeler)

Our dear friend Edward T. Wheeler, a contributor to Commonweal for twenty-five years, died in March after a brief and courageous battle with cancer. He was seventy-six, and my wife and I had helped to celebrate his birthday just a week or so before he became ill. I taught alongside Ed and his wife Sheila at the Williams School, a small country day school in New London, Connecticut, for three years in the early 1980s. We had remained good friends ever since. When I took a job at Commonweal, I was eager to have Ed write for the magazine. He was that sort of Catholic—that sort of seeker.

Ed grew up on Staten Island and graduated from Xavier High School in lower Manhattan. After Xavier, he spent two years as a novice at the Jesuit seminary in St. Andrew on Hudson, now home to the Culinary Institute of America. A sign of our times, no doubt.

After leaving the Jesuits, he attended Fordham University, where he graduated summa cum laude, in cursu honorum, with a degree in English literature. Then it was off to Oxford University for an M. Litt. in English Language and Literature. His thesis was on the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins on the interwar generation of English poets. Hopkins, along with Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones and William Blake, were among Ed’s lifelong obsessions, as were the English Romantic poets. He wrote about them all for Commonweal. He was one of the most erudite and intellectually generous people I have ever known. He was also a great deal of fun, ready to burst into song at a moment’s notice.

It was at Oxford that he met and married Sheila, and where he picked up a sometimes-impenetrable British accent, an affectation he often joked about in his self-deprecating manner. Their daughter, Rachel, was born in England in 1975. Ed and Sheila both taught in English schools for several years before landing in the states in 1977, where Ed began his thirty-one-year teaching career at the Williams School. He was a much-loved teacher and colleague.

A memorial service was held at the Williams School in June. There were at least one hundred and fifty people in attendance, including many former students and colleagues. I saw dozens of people I hadn’t seen in decades, including former students now in their fifties. Among the scheduled speakers was Rand Richards Cooper, Commonweal’s contributing editor and also a former colleague of Ed’s. Before Rand spoke, two friends of Ed’s from his years of teaching in the local men’s prison talked movingly about that aspect of his life. The first speaker, Garrett Green, was a retired religion professor from Connecticut College. I believe it was Green who had gotten Ed interested in doing prison work after his retirement from the Williams School. Green described the educational, writing, and life-skills classes he and Ed taught and how rewarding the work was. He remarked on how surprised he had been when Ed decided to teach John Donne’s poem “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” to his class, and how well those lessons went. Green remarked that Ed never gave up on the pursuit of the big questions in life, questions of meaning and purpose now so often neglected by the largely utilitarian assumptions of our educational institutions.

When I took a job at Commonweal, I was eager to have Ed write for the magazine. He was that sort of Catholic—that sort of seeker.

The second speaker was the Southern Baptist minister who ran the prison ministry program. He too spoke of Ed’s remarkable connection with inmates and how much they appreciated his sincerity and authenticity. Those teaching in the ministry program needed to be sponsored by a religious congregation. So, one day at the prison, he asked Ed where he worshiped. Somewhat surprised, Ed responded, “Why, here. I worship here.”

Ed wrote a remarkable essay about his prison work for Commonweal (“‘Lovely in Eyes Not His’: Discovering God’s Prescence behind Bars,” January 8, 2016). It’s a heartfelt, but also fascinating, depiction of both his students’ spiritual convictions and his own fitful faith. “The rewards of prison volunteer work are not limited to one source, but in remarkable ways, brotherhood in Christ is unmistakably present,” he wrote. One somewhat lengthy paragraph is worth quoting in full. “The poet and essayist Christian Wiman, in one of the meditations on faith in My Bright Abyss, reminded me of a Hopkins verse that has figured largely in my understanding of life,” Ed wrote.

“For Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, / To the father through the features of men’s faces.” Wiman uses the quotation to assert that our faith means “believing in a God who is not apart from matter (or not merely that) but part of it, a God who does not simply enjoin us to participate fully in life, and specifically in the relationships within our lives, but a God who inheres wholly within those relationships.”

At his birthday party, Ed casually mentioned that he had begun to go back to Mass. He was amused that when responding to the priest, he instinctively answered in Latin. I assumed we would talk more about his returning to Mass at a later time, but that time was taken from us.

When I think of Ed as a friend and as a brilliant and devoted teacher, I am reminded of a scene from A Man for All Seasons. The drama is set in sixteenth-century England, of course, and concerns the conflict between Henry VIII and his Lord High Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. In it, Richard Rich, a young and ambitious protégé, asks More to help secure him a political position. More demurs. “Why not be a teacher?” he says. “You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.” Rich, who would ultimately betray More, replies, “If I was, who would know it?” “You; your pupils; your friends; God,” More answers. “Not a bad public, that.” No, not a bad public at all. The outpouring of affection and admiration for Ed Wheeler at the memorial service demonstrated the abiding truth of that statement.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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