Dick Wheeler has left the building.

“My daughter told me I had to introduce myself to you,” I said to the fellow cleaning his pipe outside the Martin Luther King entrance to the capitol.

“Well, your daughter is a sick individual,” came the reply from Dick Wheeler, with perhaps a hint of a twinkle in his eye, as he continued his little task. His Facebook picture here was a lot like Dick: unvarnished, straight faced and showing you just about nothing because for that, you would just have to ask. And then he could decide what he wanted to tell you.

And so began months of twice daily meetings with Dick Wheeler outside the Martin Luther King doorway under the exterior staircase to the second floor doors that have been locked for years. The picture of the hawk you see here was taken by Wheeler on a rainy morning, looking out from this little enclave. It was a smoke-filled room dedicated solely to offstage political discourse that pretty much embodied the kind of thing that I went to Madison to experience. I was not disappointed.

Katie met Wheeler while covering a State of the State address a few years back. She had made the mistake of stopping by the capitol press room looking for directions and Wheeler immediately recognized the opportunity to put a newbie off on a wild goose chase for a laugh, like some kind of prank an upper classman would play on a freshman. Moments after she’d left, he thought better of it, retrieved her and got her where she needed to go. The pressroom was Wheeler’s domain; something he had established, protected and directed for longer than most denizens of the building could personally remember. Elected officials and staffers came and went, but Dick Wheeler endured. He was revered, respected and a one-man institution.

I never spent any time trying B.S. Dick Wheeler about anything and I would pity anyone who did, because he had seen and heard it all. He could tell you a lot, if you were trustworthy. There was a lovable crankiness about him. I never called him on the phone because it was more fun to talk to him in person, so I would just toddle on down to the pressroom whenever I needed a little more background on someone. He was a walking encyclopedia, a political maggot and a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon; a true classic. Dick Wheeler probably forgot more than most people know about state politics, but I don’t think he forgot very much.

When I heard he died this morning at 67, I was sorry to hear it. I was also sorry for his daughter, with whom he worked so closely and shared his love for the game until she and her husband had become his well-schooled and completely qualified successors. But I didn’t feel sorry for him and I don’t think he would feel sorry for himself. It was obvious that Wheeler didn’t want to retire – he told me that more than once — and so I’m happy for him that he didn’t have to. This was his life and he lived it to the very end. I’m happy to have known him, even if it was just a little bit.

JR

Dick Wheeler Memorial set for 4 p.m. Tuesday in Capitol Rotunda:

http://tinyurl.com/7268ltn

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