Centrum Mourns Passing of Founder Joseph F. Wheeler

Joseph Wheeler, photo by Kathy Constantine Centrum Founding Director Joseph F. Wheeler passed away November 2, 2009 at the age of 77 at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle. He was surrounded by his family, including his wife Renate, and his children. It was discovered that he had advanced cancer just 10 days ago.

Wheeler served as Centrum’s first executive director from 1973 to 1996, and remained an active board member and fundraiser since his retirement.

“Joe Wheeler was a visionary who helped to transform Fort Worden State Park into a center for arts and creative education that has impacted tens of thousands of Washingtonians as well as professional and aspiring artists all over the world,” said Centrum Board President Libby Reid. “Although he retired as executive director some fifteen years ago, he was a very active board member for Centrum and a tireless fundraiser.  His spirit will live on through the programs he helped to create for generations to come.”

“Although I had only known Joe for slightly less than a year, he has been a mentor to me and an inspiration in terms of ideas, energy and enthusiasm,” said Centrum Executive Director John MacElwee. “He created a cultural legacy that is still as important and vibrant today as it was thirty years ago, and we work hard every day to fulfill the vision he had for Centrum. Our hearts go out to his wife, Renate, his children and grandchildren and to the thousands of lives he touched.”

"Joe Wheeler remains a powerful force in jazz at Centrum, even with his passing today” said Jazz Port Townsend Artistic Director John Clayton. ‘His innovative ideas defined the path we continue to take, the lessons we try to give and learn, and the loving brotherhood that this music and organization represent.  Personally, I am mourning the loss of a supportive and close friend.  We shared many close moments together.  I will miss my friend and his glow, his smile and positive presence.  I offer more love to his family, friends and community." 

Joseph Fred Wheeler was born on December 19, 1931, in Wenatchee, Washington, the son of Joseph Hicks and Bertha (nee Stuart) Wheeler. His father was a civil engineer employed by the State of Washington Transportation Department. Before her marriage, his mother was an elementary school teacher.

Wheeler began playing clarinet in his school bands and orchestras, and music became an integral part of his life. Throughout these years he studied clarinet and saxophone privately, and during his college years he continued the practice of playing in both college and private bands. A professor at WSU set standards of aesthetic excellence which Wheeler adopted as his life goal.

After graduation, Wheeler taught music in the Tacoma School District at Baker Junior and Stadium High School. His innovative approach to integrating the arts and the humanities brought him to the attention of the district’s superintendent and soon he was organizing cultural events for students involving Tacoma’s opera, symphony and dance groups.

In 1956, he married Jacqueline Gault, an accomplished clarinetist in her own right, and became the father of three children. He earned a master’s degree in music education at WSU during the summers of 1955-1957.

Wheeler’s visionary work prompted the superintendent to persuade him to take a leave of absence to earn a doctorate in music education at the University of Northern Colorado.

Upon his return to Tacoma, he was appointed Director of Cultural Arts Project Development. His goal was to bridge the gap between the arts professional and arts teachers. This work brought him in contact with state and national art commissions, where he made valuable contacts which would serve him well as his career blossomed as an arts administrator.

In 1972, he was hired as a consultant to research the proposal to create an arts center at the decommisioned Army base Fort Worden, which had become a Washington State Park.

Wheeler worked closely with the Washington State Arts Commission, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Parks Commission in establishing the park as a statewide facility for arts education.

As a result of this role, he became the founder and first executive director of Centrum, envisioned and created as a multidisciplinary nonprofit arts organization. He served as executive director for 23 years. After Jacqueline’s death in 1977, he married Renate Suess.

Under Wheeler’s direction, Centrum become one of the nation’s pioneers in presenting week-long workshops at Fort Worden State Park for many different art forms, including jazz, acoustic blues, chamber music, and traditional folk arts programs including Fiddle Tunes, one of the nation’s largest festivals for traditional music. 

“It was about participation in the arts,” Wheeler said in 1997. “Centrum was to be a program where people did not come simply to see performances: the major focus was to be that people would come and be involved in the arts, to live here and to get their hands in it.”

The workshops also featured a performance component for the public, with faculty concerts in the Joseph F. Wheeler Theater (the 300-seat former Army theater renamed in Wheeler’s honor upon his retirement from Centrum) and the McCurdy Pavilion, for which he led the fundraising campaign to build a 1200 seat concert hall out of a WWI-era dirigible hangar.

These concerts, combined with intimate performances at Port Townsend clubs and restaurants developed into such internationally known festivals as Jazz Port Townsend, the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival, the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes and the Port Townsend Chamber Music Festival, all of which attracted thousands of people each summer from all over the country.

In 1974, Centrum renovated some of the Fort’s Single Unit Dwellings (SUDs) into cottages for artists to utlize in week-long stays to complete their projects. More than a thousand artists have participated in this program since its inception.

“We wanted to create educational programs in the arts and sciences in the areas where creativity was part of the process,” Wheeler said. “We wanted to provide residencies for artists to develop their own art or craft.”

Under Wheeler’s direction, Centrum also offered residential programs in arts education and exploration for Washington students at the elementary, middle-school, and high-school levels.

Since his retirement from Centrum in 1996, Wheeler was active in the community in leadership positions with the Northwest Maritime Center, Jefferson General Hospital, the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce and other organizations. He continued to serve Centrum on its Board of Directors, and remained an active fundraiser for the organization.

Services for Joseph F. Wheeler will be announced at later date. He is survived by his wife, Renate; his children: Joseph F. Wheeler, Jr., Jeffrey Brad Wheeler, and Michelle Ann Wheeler; stepchildren Philip Grad and Whendi Grad, and several grandchildren.