October, 2011

Bruce Wheeler at Georgia Tech 2011

He drove his shell colored Toyota down Britt Road; a road in Tucker Georgia – between DeKalb and Gwinnett County. It was late; the Frat party lingered on into the wee hours of Christmas Eve morning; 1983. It was a downhill stretch of road that bore to the left; he did not make that curve. His tires hit the ditch throwing the driver from the car. The Corolla kept going – turning and rolling over and over. The wrecked car was found. But where was the driver? He was found three hours later as the sun began to peep through the sky. It was eight degrees; it had been a long and cold night.
This Georgia Tech student spent the next fifteen weeks in a coma. Just a few weeks earlier, on Thanksgiving Day, his dream of a lifetime had come true. By most anyone’s standards, he was the luckiest person in the whole wide world.
And for the past three years, he followed the footsteps of his father and brother, who received degrees as Industrial Managers from Georgia Tech. His mother’s first cousin, Pepper Rodgers, also added to the family tradition of the Yellow Jackets by coaching football at Georgia Tech 1974-1979. And now, this young man had been elected to drive the white and gold mechanical mascot of Georgia Tech – the 1930 Ford Model A dubbed the Ramblin ‘Reck. His first and only drive was on Thanksgiving Day.
His life was divided into four categories: studies, Sigma Nu, girls and intramural sports – until now.
Now, he struggled to live. Now, everything had changed. Old man winter proved to be his friend. The freezing temperature did not allow his body to bleed out. When found, he was almost frozen. And finally after fifteen weeks of unconsciousness, he accomplished the hardest thing ever. Bruce Wheeler opened his eyes.
With that single act, he said to the world, “I’m not done yet.”
For another ten weeks Bruce was comatose. He was surrounded by family and friends the entire time. His parents refused to leave him. Tucker friends and Smoke Rise neighbors kept the family in good food and good company. Reynolds and June Anne Rodgers-Wheeler stayed with their son.
Then there was recovery; it had its ups and downs. At DeKalb General Hospital, Bruce worked so hard at physical therapy, he stretched an inch taller. He worked just as hard at Emory Rehab and the Gwinnett Head Injury Association, to learn to speak again and to adjust back into the community. He soon realized that his ears were good, but had to over enunciate to have his words understood. He had a lot to learn and embraced it.
As Bruce returned to the community, he was disturbed to find people did not speak directly to him, but spoke to whoever was with him. He felt separated from the community. He felt the sting particularly at restaurants. He thought to himself, “Please, speak to me. I am here. At least give me the opportunity to point to the menu. Please, don’t ask someone else what ‘he wants to eat.’”
Frustrated of being told what he could not do, he said, “Tell me what I can do; not what I cannot do.” He began to realize that there must be others out there in the community who felt the same way and was soon asking, “How can I change this? What can I do?”
Bruce Wheeler organized the group, HIPs; Head Injured Pals. The purpose of the organization is to educate the community. He wanted everyone to realize that Head Injured Pals live in a normal world, and are the same as everyone, except for the fact that they have a head injury.
And Bruce called on his Georgia Tech family to help him. Georgia Tech Basketball coach, Bobby Cremins stepped forward. That was only the beginning. Pete Babcock, general manager and vice president of the Atlanta Hawks, treated one-hundred-ten HIPs to the best seats in the house to enjoy a Hawks Basketball game. John Schuerholz, president of the Atlanta Braves, would not be out done. Schuerholz treated one hundred-twenty HIPs to a Braves game. Tennis professional, Bjorn Borge, spoke on behalf of HIPs, as did Congressman Ben Jones, President Jimmy Carter, and Muhammad Ali. Senator Max Cleland, who at the time was Georgia’s Secretary of State, decided to hold a meeting to support HIPs. He provided eighty chairs and one-hundred-twenty supporters in the community showed up. And much to Bruce’s surprise, at an event, he was kissed squarely on the lips by Miss America, Carolyn Sapps.
Bruce and six-hundred-plus HIPs reached out to their community. They spread the message in the United States, China, Japan, South America, Great Britain and Russia. The message was a plain and simple one.

“Talk to me, not around me. I need your assistance, not your help. Please, don’t do it for me. By assisting, you help me to help myself.”

On Saturday, September 24, 2011, Bruce Wheeler rolled his wheelchair out to the edge of the Georgia Tech Football Field. Bruce took his cane, stood up, and steadied himself – all six foot three. He stood tall and smiled when his name was called out over the loud speaker. Bruce Wheeler had a lot to be proud of. He held his head a little higher as he remembered he was a point guard for the Tucker High School Basketball Team; a school where he maintained a 3.9 grade point average. He graduated from Georgia Tech in 1986. He drove the Ramblin ‘Reck, a 1930 Ford Model A Cabriolet Sports Coupe, on one Thanksgiving Day. Today he walked out onto the field and proudly stood with the other Ramblin ‘Reck drivers to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Georgia Tech tradition. The Georgia Tech and North Carolina fans stood to their feet in a standing ovation to recognize and honor the Ramblin ‘Reck drivers as the beautiful antique car made its way onto the field for the 50th year. The roar could be heard all the way past the Varsity to the Fox Theater on Peachtree Street.

Bruce Wheeler took his place in history, and waved back to the enthusiastic crowd.
And that is how we do things down here in sweet Georgia!