Perhaps the wisdom of “The Wizard of Oz” is the best descriptor for the emotions running through more than 100 friends, loved ones and community leaders who gathered Thursday night at the Museum Center at Five Points to honor the retiring Tom Wheeler, a man who gave his best to Cleveland Utilities and his all to the people it serves.
In one of the most telling moments of the Hollywood classic, the Wizard tells the empty-chested Tin Man, “A heart is not measured by how much you love, but how much you are loved by others.”
And such was the scene in a Southeast Tennessee town a rainbow away from the Emerald City as a handful of dignitaries and special guests poured their hearts out — some lightheartedly, some more seriously — to the 43-year Cleveland Utilities employee who rose through the ranks, from distribution engineer in 1971 to president and CEO four decades later.
Billed the “Tom Wheeler Retirement Dinner,” planned by a committee comprised of CU employees and two members of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities, the festive event included plenty of jokes, an entertaining video, the presentation of two plaques of appreciation and five personal tributes.
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, who represents the City Council on the utility board, emceed the night and opened with a tale of partnering with Wheeler on a Cleveland industrial team that once traveled to Toronto to recruit Canadian companies to consider Bradley County as a new, or expanded, home. As the story goes, Wheeler did the driving only to learn a short time later he had been traveling the wrong way on a one-way street.
Rowland described the CU president as “... an Alabama boy who was driving in Toronto.”
Retired Bradley County Sessions Court Judge Van Deacon, a good friend to Wheeler, took the podium next and delivered a humorous account from Wheeler’s student days at Auburn University, which was also Deacon’s alma mater.
“Tom Wheeler is a friend of mine and I hope he will be after tonight,” Deacon offered.
Although most of his script was a roast of the longtime utility manager, Deacon closed on a serious note when he told Wheeler, “I’m really proud to be Tom’s friend.” He later added, “And thank you Tom for being my friend.”
Ricky Lawson, a retired vice president of CU’s Administrative Services department, described Wheeler as a firm manager, but a fair one. He described Wheeler’s response years ago to a faulty telephone system that the utility had installed — at Lawson’s suggestion. Once, during a phone outage, Wheeler asked Lawson “how long” before it would be fixed. Lawson’s answer was, “I don’t know.”
“Wrong answer!” Lawson laughed during his roast. Years later, the two often laughed about the frustrating episode, he said.
“Tom is a very good friend of mine, and he’s been a very good boss,” Lawson pointed out. But his biggest praise for Wheeler was the CU leader’s dedication to his workforce.
“I appreciated that from him, and what he’s done for Cleveland Utilities employees,” Lawson said.
Ken Webb, CU senior vice president and CFO who will become Wheeler’s successor as president and CEO on Oct. 1, pointed out for the past few weeks he has been reminding Wheeler he could still change his mind, and not retire.
“... But he’s held steadfast to his decision to retire, and as of tonight it appears to me the time for him to change his mind has past,” Webb acknowledged. “He is retiring. He has earned it.”
Webb added, “It’s not very often you get the opportunity to recognize someone with a career as long as Tom’s has been with Cleveland Utilities, and one with such a tremendous impact on this community.”
Webb said Thursday night’s recognition of Wheeler was not just an honoring of the retiree, but an honoring of the decision made in 1971 by former CU General Manager M.E. “Joe” Beavers to hire Wheeler almost fresh out of college.
“... The dividends this community has received from Mr. Beavers’ decision to hire Tom Wheeler are beyond measure,” Webb told the Museum Center crowd.
Webb credited Wheeler not only for his dedication to public power, but to civic service such as his involvement with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Bradley County and the Rotary Club of Cleveland.
“He understands and he supports the concept of public power, and the heritage we all share, and particularly here in the Tennessee Valley,” Webb pointed out. “His commitment to the customers of Cleveland Utilities has been reflected throughout his career.”
The incoming CU president and CEO credited Wheeler with a neve-rending can-do attitude.
“His approach has always been, ‘How can we make this work for the good of all?’” Webb said.
He pointed to two recent examples where the Cleveland and Bradley County community stood to lose a large number of existing jobs, but Wheeler’s dedication provided the impetus for area companies to maintain their local presence.
“Many people in his position, faced with this particular challenge, might have just responded, ‘We can’t do that,’” Webb recalled. “Tom’s response was, ‘We can, and we will.’ And, we did.”
Webb also credited Wheeler with a commitment to employee safety, security and well-being, as well as the same for CU customers.
“[Tom] is to this day an advocate for his employees,” Webb stressed. “He wants them to succeed in their job, [and to be] productive, contributing members of their community.”
Speaking on a personal note, Webb said of Wheeler, “He has been my mentor, my teacher, my supporter and my friend ... on those days when I needed constructive criticism. He wanted me, and all his employees, to do their best.”
Webb told Wheeler the utility will continue its commitment to safety, and he added, “... We will do it in your honor.”
Webb thanked Wheeler for all he has done for the community and for CU employees and customers.
“On behalf of your employees, please accept our gratitude for being our leader and our friend,” Webb told the retiree. “On behalf of this community, thank you for making it a better place for all of us.”
Utility Board Vice Chairman Eddie Cartwright, who chaired the Retirement Dinner committee, thanked his group whose work included not only Thursday’s festivities, but also an employee reception for Wheeler scheduled for Friday (today). He recognized committee members Chari Buckner, Jan Runyan, Connie Cooke, Tim Henderson and Webb.
In his closing address, Wheeler thanked a slew of friends, family and supporters, the latter of whom included a large number of Cleveland and Bradley County government leaders, as well as past and present members of the 32-year-old utility board.
“This has been a fantastic evening,” Wheeler stressed.
Speaking directly to several members of his management team who will now lead Cleveland Utilities, Wheeler offered four pieces of advice for continued success.
1. Take care of Cleveland Utilities customers.
2. Take care of Cleveland Utilities employees, and he called them “... the most important resource we have.”
3. Take care of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities and keep its members informed and involved in utility decisions.
4. Keep the Cleveland City Council informed and involved in the same way.
“You do all four of these things and you’ll continue to be successful,” Wheeler stressed.
On a rare somber note, Rowland closed the night’s Wheeler roast with, “Tom ... seriously, it’s been a pleasure calling you friend for many years and working with you. I look forward to you coming back to us and telling us about all your travels and trips.”
In other presentations during the evening, TVA representatives Tim Rader and Odell Frye presented Wheeler with a plaque of appreciation and a framed print; utility board Vice Chairman Eddie Cartwright, on behalf of Chairman Aubrey Ector who could not attend, read a resolution honoring Wheeler and also presented him with a plaque of appreciation; and Rowland read a city proclamation declaring Thursday as “Tom Wheeler Day” in the city of Cleveland.