Otis Wheeler was principal of Ridgeway Elementary for 28 years

Tuesday, May 6, 2014 | 9:21 p.m. CDT; updated 8:11 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 7, 2014

COLUMBIA — Jan Wheeler wears a gold coin around her neck that her father, Dr. Otis V. Wheeler Jr. "O.V.," gave her after she received her doctorate from MU in 1994.

A family heirloom, the coin is passed down to the most educated member of each Wheeler generation. Her father received the coin and passed it to his daughter, along with his knowledge of nature and astronomy.

Dr. Otis V. Wheeler Jr. "O.V." died Thursday, May 1, 2014. He was 88.

Dr. Wheeler was born on Oct. 1, 1925, in Silex to Otis and Pearlie Wheeler. After graduating from Hickman High School in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy. He was discharged in 1945 and enrolled at MU where he courted his wife, Virginia "Ginger" Rogers. The couple knew each other briefly in junior high school, but Virginia moved to Kansas City shortly after they met. The couple married June 7, 1947.

Dr. Wheeler re-enlisted in the Navy in 1949 and completed his flight training. He flew in patrol missions over the Pacific Ocean while stationed in Okinawa, Japan. He was honorably discharged as a lieutenant in 1952, his wife said.

Dr. Wheeler joined the Columbia Public School District in 1961 as a science teacher and became principal of Ridgeway Elementary in 1963. He held the position until he retired in 1991.

His wife, who was also a teacher, remembers a man who loved children and got along with everybody.

"He was never in his office. He was always checking on the children and seeing what they were doing," Virginia Wheeler said. "He would get mobbed by a big group hug when he walked into the kindergarten."

Dr. Wheeler helped found the Individually Guided Education program at the elementary school in 1972, which is still the school's trademark, said Susan Fales, the woman who succeeded him as principal and worked as a teacher while he was principal at Ridgeway Elementary for 15 years. 

The program groups students in multi-age learning communities rather than grade levels and puts teachers, students and administrators on an even playing field in the decision-making process.

Fales said Dr. Wheeler was an even-keeled leader who was good at giving out responsibility.

"He was always upbeat, friendly and cheerful," Fales said. "If there was a problem to solve, we all brainstormed together." 

Dr. Wheeler received numerous awards during the course of his career including being recognized as a National Distinguished Principal for the state of Missouri in 1985. The award took him and his wife to the White House to meet then President Ronald Reagan.

Dr. Wheeler also received the 1987 MU College of Education Alumni Citation of Merit Award and was named the 1989-90 Columbia Public Schools' Outstanding Administrator of Year. He was inducted into the Columbia Public Schools Foundation Hall of Leaders in 2000.

Dr. Wheeler is survived by his wife, Ginger; a daughter, Jan; a grandson, Nicholas; a granddaughter, Emily; and three great-grandchildren.

His son, Mark; a grandson, Nathan; and a grandson, Chris, died earlier.

A graveside service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 17, at Memorial Park Cemetery, 1217 Business Loop 70 W. A reception will follow at 3 p.m. at the Wheeler residence.

Memorial contributions can be made to Ridgeway Elementary, 107 E. Sexton Road, Columbia, MO 65203, to support the Individually Guided Education program.

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