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Longtime journalist Dick Wheeler dies at age 67

By Scott Bauer

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 11 2011 12:01 p.m. MST

MADISON, Wis. — Dick Wheeler, a longtime journalist who covered Wisconsin politics and founded a popular website that bore his name, died Friday. He was 67.

His daughter, Gwyn Guenther, said Wheeler died at his Madison apartment as he was getting ready to come into the Capitol for work. The cause of death was unknown, but he suffered from congestive heart failure and had suffered a heart attack 24 years ago, Guenther said.

"My dad always said two things about his job," Guenther said. "He loved what he was doing so he never worked a day in his life and the day he stopped enjoying it he would stop showing up."

Wheeler came to Madison in 1972 to work for the Gongwer News Service, Guenther said. That same year he started The Wheeler Report, which began as a newsletter detailing activities of the state government and Legislature that he mailed to subscribers daily, she said.

The report was later faxed to subscribers before a website was started in 1998, Guenther said. The site included original reporting by Wheeler, links to news stories written by others, and details of legislative action Wheeler and his staff compiled. Subscribers had access to even more information, including every vote taken by the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, which crafts the state budget.

"His dispassionate reporting was the standard and everybody knew what Dick was reporting was the facts," said former Gov. Jim Doyle, one of eight governors Wheeler covered. "He developed a service that was relied upon by everyone in the Capitol."

Wheeler's website was a family business, with Guenther and his son-in-law working by his side, as well as Wheeler's longtime companion Diane Harmelink.

One of Wheeler's proudest achievements was his role in getting a state Capitol room forever designated for use by the press in the 1998 budget. Then-Senate President Fred Risser, D-Madison, wanted Democrats to be able to use the room, which is centrally located between the Senate and Assembly chambers, but Wheeler wouldn't have it.

"Dick said he wanted the press in here and he beat us," said Risser, who's been in the Legislature since 1957.

Politicians past and present remembered Wheeler for his Wisconsin government knowledge, his fairness, and his omnipresence in the Capitol.

"I will miss the smell of pipe tobacco outside the Martin Luther King exit," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said of Wheeler, who often smoked his pipe just outside the Capitol entrances while he pumped sources for news.

Gov. Scott Walker said Wheeler "always impartially and honorably pursued the truth," while Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder and Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald issued a joint statement calling Wheeler "as much a part of this institution as the Assembly itself."

Wheeler previously worked for United Press International and Scripps Howard in Michigan and Ohio, where he covered the Kent State shootings in 1970, Guenther said. Wheeler was born outside of Pittsburgh and studied for one year to be a Baptist minister before giving it up for a life in journalism, she said.

Wheeler worked a full day on Thursday, his last in the Capitol, reporting on actions of the Joint Finance Committee. He always was the first person in the press room, frequently arriving at 5:30 a.m.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson called him the "quintessential Capitol press room reporter."

"Although known as a hard nose newsman, he was a warm, friendly conversationalist," she said.

Wheeler also was generous to his colleagues in the press, frequently buying coffee or food for those covering the Legislature deep into the night. One of his favorite expressions, as he would reach for his wallet, was "You fly, I buy."

Arrangements were pending.

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