The University Record, April 18, 1994

Wheeler ‘chartered course we are attempting to follow today’

When Albert Wheeler died April 4, he left a legacy of accomplishments for others to build on both at the University and within the greater Ann Arbor community.

A persistent and vocal leader who raised community consciousness and fought for human rights, Wheeler “pioneered in the field of higher education to grant full access and equal opportunities to all minorities,” says President James J. Duderstadt. “He chartered the course that we are attempting to follow today at the University with the Michigan Mandate. His struggle for equality within the University was often lonely and always difficult, but he endured and converted many to his point of view. His legacy to the University is that he almost single-handedly created an environment that made possible our gains in recent years.”

Friends and colleagues also remember Wheeler, professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology, as a fervent social and political activist within the community, particularly with respect to his advocacy of civil rights.

He also was a mentor for minority faculty as they became acclimated to the campus and community environments. Wheeler, Duderstadt notes, “was not satisfied with his efforts to change and improve the University of Michigan. He also targeted the city of Ann Arbor, Southeast Michigan, the state and the nation as a whole. He was an inspirational and tireless leader whose accomplishments in all of these arenas are well documented. What is equally important, is the fact that Prof. Wheeler nurtured a host of others to carry on his work, because, despite the considerable progress at the University and on society at large, much remains to be done.

“Among those left to carry on Prof. Wheeler’s work is a devoted and loving family that supported him through his many travails over the years and shared in his accomplishments. The University of Michigan salutes Prof. Wheeler and his accomplishments, and salutes his family and friends.”

Colleague Frederick C. Neidhardt notes that Wheeler was a member of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology throughout his career at the University, “and was a full-time member upon return from his famous leave to serve the Archidiocese of Detroit in the early 1970s.

“He brought to the department a special perspective on the microbiology and immunology of the deadly venereal disease syphilis, caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. His directorship of the Treponema laboratory at the University was outstanding, and his teaching of medical, nursing and medical technology students was professional and superb,” says Neidhardt, associate vice president for research and the Frederick G. Novy Distinguished University Professor of Microbiology and Immunology.

“Dr. Wheeler even in retirement served the department well,” Neidhardt adds, “returning to participate in MLK Day activities for department faculty, staff and students, and serving as an important mentor and counselor for new minority faculty in the department. The department owes a great debt to Prof. Wheeler for his effective leadership as a scholar, teacher and agent for social change."

An Ann Arbor News editorial April 6 noted that Wheeler “could have lived a comfortable and quiet middle-class life as a highly respected University of Michigan medical researcher and professor. Instead, he chose to stand up and fight against social and racial injustice. For that, he drew fire in the middle of his numerous civil rights battles, but later won widespread admiration. “A gentle man who wasn’t afraid to make waves” the editorial noted, Wheeler “left a legacy of civil rights accomplishments admired by men and women of all racial, ethnic and social backgrounds.

“As a role model,” the editorial continued, “Wheeler offers much to admire. He was a personable, courteous and dedicated family man. He said many of the civil rights battles he and his wife fought were to open doors for their children.

“Wheeler sought changes one by one,” the editorial concluded, “but his eyes were focused on the big picture. As a leader in the war on poverty in the 1960s, for example, he urged that reform be based on community organization, not charity. The goal, he said, was to help people help themselves.”

Wheeler, who joined the U-M in 1952, was the University’s first tenured Black professor. He was an assistant professor of microbiology and dermatology in 1952–59. He was appointed associate professor in 1978 and professor of microbiology and immunology in 1978. He was granted emeritus status in 1981.

Wheeler spearheaded the push in Michigan for a state Civil Rights Commission in the 1960s, and helped found the Ann Arbor Civic Forum, forerunner to the Ann Arbor NAACP chapter, which he served as president in 1966–69. He was instrumental in establishing the Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission and integrating Jones Elementary School, now Community High School.

He was mayor of Ann Arbor in 1975–77.

Wheeler is survived by his wife, Emma; and three daughters, Nancy Francis, a Washtenaw County probate judge; Alma Smith, legislative aide to Sen. Lana Pollack and a county commissioner; and Mary McDade, an attorney in Peoria, Ill. Memorial services have been held.