William J. (Bill) Wheeler
A multi-talented Markham resident, dedicated to Canadian aviation history and passionate about art, has earned a place among distinguished achievers. William J. (Bill) Wheeler was inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame at a gala dinner and ceremony on 26 May 2011. He was among four 2011 inductees at the event which was held at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario.
Wheeler's unassuming nature belies his many accomplishments as a teacher, artist, author and encyclopedic aviation historian. His home is a virtual art gallery of fine renditions of aircraft in flight and albums of illustrations he drew for high-profile clients. Shelves of books, including four that he produced, line the living room.
Wheeler's colleagues cite his outstanding volunteer effort as editor of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS) Journal as key to his induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame, which is based in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. He held the post for 45 years from 1963 until 2008.
"The Journal was a labour of love," Wheeler said as he reflected recently on his stewardship of the widely respected quarterly publication. Its readership spans Canada and extends into the United States, Britain, and beyond.
"Aviation history is a rich and rewarding subject, diverse in so many ways. It was gratifying to meet all the people I came to know and recording their stories."
The Journal culminated Wheeler's vision of an organization that would promote the significance of aviation in Canada. He was a founding member of the CAHS, holding membership number 5, still proudly displayed on a personalized car licence plate.
Wheeler's interest in art and aviation took shape as a boy, in his native Port Arthur. "I always liked to draw. I was encouraged by my dad, who was the city architect. He designed and built the elementary school I attended."
Wheeler grew up in the 1930s, an era of record-breaking flights and of Don Winslow and "Tailspin" Tommy comic strips. He lived near the waterfront, where he would observe a red Stinson Reliant, a classic aircraft which occasionally flew over the Wheeler house.
"I was impressed by the Reliant's distinctive gull wing shape. I tried to carve one from orange crate wood."
During the war, Wheeler and his friends would listen for aircraft and count the combat planes -- Hurricanes and later Helldivers -- built by Canadian Car & Foundry Ltd at its Fort William plant. They would regularly go for a Sunday drive to visit the airport and park by the fence to watch yellow Tiger Moth trainers flown as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
"Tiger Moths seemed to be everywhere, landing surprisingly close to the hangars and bouncing. I was amazed that you could treat an aeroplane like that --- and that they didn't collide."
After graduating from high school in Port Arthur, Wheeler moved to Toronto to attend the Ontario College of Art (OCA). During his time at OCA, he met Pat Smith, a fellow student. They were married three years later in 1955, the same year that Wheeler graduated. They raised three sons.
Wheeler worked as a freelance illustrator during the early 1960s for the de Havilland Canada aircraft company, the Toronto Star Weekly, and various publishers. He also illustrated a boy's book on First World War flying -- Knights of the Air -- for Macmillan Canada. A bestseller, it achieved about eight printings in at least two editions. Wheeler illustrated 60 books in whole or part, often collaborating with Pat, also an OCA grad and a distinguished cartoonist.
In the late 1960s, Wheeler became a high school teacher. He was head of the art department at West Hill Collegiate in Scarborough for 25 years and retired in 1994 after almost three decades in the profession.
Wheeler was also active in the community, serving on the Local Architectural Conservancy Advisory Committee in the mid-1980s and on the program committee for the Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery. He has a slide collection of more than 1,000 historic buildings including many Markham homes that are now gone.
Wheeler has produced several books in addition to the numerous articles he wrote for the CAHS Journal. The titles include Images of Flight: A Canadian Aviation Portfolio, featuring paintings by Canada's best-known aviation artists; Skippers of the Sky, highlighting bush flying; Flying Under Fire: Canadian Flyers Recall the Second World War, and more. He made another contribution for the CAHS in 2009, as guest editor of a CAHS Toronto Chapter Flypast special anniversary edition celebrating a century of powered flight in Canada.
What won't disappear are Wheeler's indelible memories of fascinating personalities whose stories appeared in the Journal and friendships with aviation artists whose work graced its covers.
By Gord McNulty