If you know Richard Wheeler, there’s a good chance you know him really well.
For 38 years, countless mountain-area neighbors depended on Dr. Richard Wheeler, DDS, to keep their choppers in proper chewing trim. These days, though, the energetic Cragmont resident is sinking his teeth into non-professional fields of endeavor that are both equally rewarding and every bit as necessary to the public weal.
Originally from South Carolina, Wheeler honed his skills as an Army dentist serving in South Korea. With a brother living in Evergreen, he mustered out of the military and into Colorado, hanging out his shingle across the Centennial State map from Littleton to Steamboat Springs before sinking roots into the green banks of Bear Creek. If Wheeler’s dental chair got up and moved every few years, it never left central Evergreen, resting for 10 years in the Woodpecker Building before moving on to the Bear Creek Building and finally settling in an attractive Hilltop adobe.
Wheeler gladly donated his essential services to the handicapped, and fixed a lot of smiles for clients referred to him by Evergreen Christian Outreach. Even those neighbors who never saw him professionally will recognize Wheeler as “The Man Behind the Mask,” his monthly dental-oriented column that appeared for years in various local publications. Keenly interested in new medical advances, Wheeler was also an early proponent of automated external defibrillators.
“I was the first business in Evergreen to have one,” he recalls. “There are 65 AEDs in Evergreen now, and they’ve saved six lives.”
Although Wheeler sold his thriving practice in 2010, he’s not out of dentistry entirely. As it happens, a small, satellite office he constructed more than 25 years ago on the green banks of South Turkey Creek demands his attention every year right about this time.
“In 1990 my mom was ill and living with me, and I drove her by Tiny Town,” he explains. “She said it needed a dentist’s office.”
Wheeler immediately commissioned one, a tyke-sized replica of the house his mom had grown up in, which, appropriately enough, had at one time seen use as a medical office. Although his mom wouldn’t live to see the project completed, untold thousands of children have enjoyed Tiny Town’s sole and only dentist’s office in the quarter-century since, the curtains in its wee windows handmade by Wheeler’s sister. The diminutive dwelling had to be rebuilt at the last turn of the millennium, and four years ago a professional roofer was engaged to apply fresh shingles. While one might not suspect it, Tiny Town’s kid-accessible attractions tend to take a bit of a beating.
“Painting, fixing doors, replacing broken plexiglass windows…,” Wheeler enumerates. “I’ll spend 40 hours working on it this season. Not many people realize how much volunteer effort it takes to keep Tiny Town looking as good as it does.”
But then Wheeler has always had a strong streak of volunteerism running through him, and it’s one he’s passed down to his two children. Thing is, while he’s the first to praise the good works undertaken by local nonprofits and civic associations, Wheeler has ever sought to turn his hand to those causes supported by the fewest hands.
“I realized that I can do things as an individual that great organizations like Kiwanis and Rotary really can’t. My niche is kind of helping out where less people are volunteering.”
When the Colorado Trail was still mostly a red line on a topographical map, for example, he helped carve paths through rough country near Buena Vista, Creede and Salida. As growing awareness began resulting in growing trail crews, Wheeler started looking for new underdogs to champion.
He would find one at Craig Hospital in the person of Peter Pauwels, a mechanical engineer devoted to the exceedingly rare specialty of designing and fabricating outdoor sporting equipment for quadriplegics. As an enthusiastic fly fisherman and outdoorsman – and as a man who once came very near to permanent disability himself – it was a mission that spoke to Wheeler’s heart, and he soon began accompanying Pauwels and very small groups of disabled sportsmen on hunting, fishing and shooting expeditions arranged through the nonprofit Outdoor Buddies.
“Not many people understand the limitations these people face, so there’s not a lot of help out there for them,” says Wheeler. “But then I’m just the grunt guy. I put the equipment together, haul rafts in and out of the water, whatever is needed.”
If Wheeler isn’t the one to say it, what is most needed to make Outdoor Buddies work is a dedicated grunt guy willing to give freely of the labor, expertise and enthusiasm it takes to help disabled people realize their wilderness dreams. Wheeler has adventured alongside folks of varying levels of ability over the years, and his able hands have supported fishing and hunting expeditions in some of the wide West’s wildest locations. As volunteerism, it’s pretty good duty. As human experience, it’s transformative.
“The rewards of being around people with major disabilities are enormous,” he says. “To see how they deal with it, their attitudes, how they go to work, go to school, and just live their lives. It’s incredibly inspiring.”
This spring Wheeler will be helping out at Staunton State Park, where Pauwels is launching some new trail-ready tracked wheelchairs. Come summer he’ll be facilitating an Outdoor Buddies raft trip down the Colorado River near State Bridge. And when he’s not busy helping fellow nature lovers get the essential outdoor therapy that’s so important to their mental wellbeing, he’ll be at home getting some for himself.
“I used to move rocks and dirt on the Colorado Trail; now I move rocks and dirt at my house,” he grins. “It’s yard therapy.”