John Wheeler was just finishing his second year at Case Western Reserve when he met president-elect Barbara R. Snyder.
Pulled out of retirement to help with Cleveland and regional affairs, Wheeler assured her that he would be happy for the new president to pick her own leadership team.
But Snyder had very different ideas. She promoted Wheeler, gave him special projects, and repeatedly persuaded him to stay at the university far longer than he ever would have imagined.
Finally, a decade after Wheeler first started what he thought would be a short-term assignment, he really is retiring—although Snyder reserves the right to tap him for additional one-off assignments.
“John’s easygoing nature belies an extraordinarily brilliant and incisive mind, a remarkable sense of strategy, and an innate understanding of how to resolve even the trickiest of challenges,” President Snyder said. “I count on him for advice, perspective, and sometimes simply his calming presence—as do many other members of our team. He has contributed to Case Western Reserve in so many ways that his impact truly is incalculable.”
Wheeler’s full-time career at Case Western Reserve closes Jan. 18, 2015—exactly 10 years to the day that he first arrived. He departs after 6.5 years as the university’s senior vice president for administration. In that role, he had responsibility for auxiliary services including police and dining, facilities, human resources and more. During his tenure, the university upgraded the Leutner dining hall, opened the Tinkham Veale University Center, and began work on The Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at The Temple – Tifereth Israel. It also developed a new benefits model to accommodate changes in federal law and slow cost increases, expanded police staffing and services, and recruited Vice President for Campus Planning and Facilities Management Steve Campbell from Dartmouth University.
“John is the kind of leader who continually inspires admiration and respect,” Campbell said. “He sets high expectations, but he also empowers you to meet them. And, if you ever need advice or support, he is always ready to help.”
Among other accomplishments under Wheeler’s leadership was the university’s adoption of a Climate Action Plan, one of the components of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). The university had been taking broad measures to reduce energy consumption even before the 2011 adoption of the plan; for example, from 2009 to 2012, the university cut emissions by 7 percent—the equivalent of making nearly 2,750 average U.S. homes carbon neutral.
In addition, the university continued efforts to enhance campus safety. In 2012, for example, President Snyder directed funds from her office to enable the police to add a third car for its Safe Ride program. The number of rides taken increased by more than 150 percent the following year, or a total of nearly 20,000 additional rides. This summer, meanwhile, Wheeler and President Snyder responded to an on-campus robbery at gunpoint by authorizing additional security staff and a comprehensive study of the university’s force relative to peer institutions.
“John’s commitment to keeping our students, staff and faculty safe is unparalleled,” said Vice President for Campus Services Richard Jamieson, “as is his respect for and commitment to the individuals who work to provide that security.”
At the same time, Wheeler also is willing to employ humor—even when directed at him—to engage staff. In 2010, for example, he and Chief Financial Officer John Sideras donned boxing gloves before staff as part of a month-long “10,000-step challenge” between the offices of administration and finance. (For the record, Wheeler’s team won.)
The “fight” between the two was for show, but Wheeler’s commitment to wellness is anything but. In 2012, the university appointed its first-ever medical director, nursing professor Elizabeth Click, to lead the university’s program to enhance employee health. In 2013 Case Western Reserve unveiled an extensive incentive plan—emphasizing exercise and on-campus classes—to encourage people to take better care of themselves.
“John has an uncanny ability to zero in on the crux of a matter, which allows everyone who works for him to be more effective,” said Vice President for Human Resources Carolyn Gregory. “He has no interest in ego or acclaim, just getting the job done in the most practical yet humane way possible.”
Wheeler was born in 1940 and raised in Conneaut, Ohio. He earned his undergraduate degree from Allegheny College and his J.D. from Case Western Reserve. He joined the Calfee Halter & Griswold law firm in 1970 and in 1991 began an eight-year stint as its managing partner. He retired from the law firm in 2002, and then served two terms as Hunting Valley’s mayor. Wheeler has served on the board of his alma mater, including four as its chair, and also has been on the boards of BioEnterprise, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and NorTech.
President Snyder is still evaluating options regarding how to fill Wheeler’s role, and said she will have an announcement within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, colleagues will celebrate Wheeler and his service during the administrative and finance offices’ holiday breakfast Dec. 17.
“There are no words that adequately convey my gratitude to John,” President Snyder said. “This retirement is exceptionally well-earned.”