We speak of the well-deserved and hard-earned retirement of Tom Wheeler, a hands-on leader whose CU career began way back in 1971 only a couple of years out of college — and for the record, he is an alumnus of Auburn University whose diverse engineering program is well respected and internationally known.
Wheeler’s ascension through the public utility’s ranks began almost immediately. As is the case with all well-rounded managers, he accepted a long series of new challenges throughout his career — and sometimes in different departments — before landing the role of assistant general manager. He reported to the same man who had hired him away from aviation engineering in Florida; that is, M.E. “Joe” Beavers, a longtime warrior in the Cleveland Utilities arena whose own retirement 24 years ago led to Wheeler’s final promotion to general manager.
In 2012, the GM position was renamed to president and CEO, and that is the title by which Wheeler is best known and the one that is now being carried by his successor, Ken Webb. Technically, Wheeler’s retirement is not effective for another four weeks, but the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities agreed to transfer Wheeler’s duties to Webb on Oct. 1 to allow the new retiree to make full use of unclaimed personal days from his long tenure at the utility helm.
Coming to the front office after an almost 30-year career of his own, Webb’s previous assignment had been as senior vice president and CFO. The likable community servant has all the makings of being an excellent leader.
Why? The answer is simple as the flick of a light switch. He trained under, and worked for, one of the utility industry’s best — Wheeler.
For years, our newspaper has closely followed Wheeler’s work — both as a professional in the world of utilities and as a civic-minded resident of our Cleveland and Bradley County hometown whose actions and words have always focused on one theme: the betterment of his community.
It is obvious we admire, and continue to admire, Tom Wheeler’s abilities. But let us set the record straight about any myths surrounding this 66-year-old leader who is rapidly approaching his 67th birthday.
Tom Wheeler did not invent electricity.
Tom Wheeler did not guide mankind along a path of illumination — neither physically nor figuratively.
Tom Wheeler did not launch ships with a flick of an electrical switch nor did he carve out great waterways on which those same boats floated from sea to shining sea.
Tom Wheeler did not design intercontinental water lines that brought fresh water from the northernmost regions of Canada to the southern deserts of Mexico.
Tom Wheeler did not snap his fingers and create massive sewer treatment and water filtration plants that modernized the bulk of America.
Tom Wheeler did not say “let there be light” and suddenly a hemisphere emerged from the dark.
In all likelihood, Tom Wheeler might have had a hand in many — or most — of the above, but he didn’t have the time ... because he was too busy taking care of the people in his own community.
It wasn’t always easy. In fact, it hardly ever was.
Those who read this newspaper’s two-part series on Wheeler’s pending retirement that was published in late September now understand — if they didn’t already — the utility industry operates at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Some of Wheeler’s worst, but most vivid, memories are marked by infamous weather events such as the 500-year floods of 1973, the twin tornadoes of ’74, the record cold winter of ’78, the blizzard of ’93 and of course, April 27, 2011 — a date etched in the minds, and in the hearts, of those who called Bradley County their home.
Tom Wheeler is a survivor.
Tom Wheeler is a leader.
Tom Wheeler is a Clevelander whose Bradley County roots weren’t planted here, but that are now firmly entrenched in an oak-solid love for all that gives our Southeast Tennessee home its hometown feel.
Tom Wheeler will be missed, but his legacy will live on. His is an era defined by quality of service, consistency in delivery, cost effectiveness, employee responsiveness and undying belief in customer service.
Tom Wheeler’s career at Cleveland Utilities has always been centered on one goal — that of making Cleveland and Bradley County the best place it can be ... in the eyes of visitors, in the perceptions of outsiders and in the hearts of all who call it home.
We will have more to say about Tom Wheeler in Monday’s edition. This man of the present, even in retirement, still has a vision for the future.
It’s worth a good look.
So until then, thank you, Tom — not just for the memories, but for the progressive times in making them happen.