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Originally published Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 12:09 AM

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Joseph Wheeler put Port Townsend on the arts map

Joseph F. Wheeler, founding director of Centrum, the nonprofit arts organization at the decommissioned Army base at Fort Worden, died Monday at age 77.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The word you'll hear most to describe Joseph F. Wheeler: visionary. He looked at a state park and saw a cultural center that would draw artists from around the world and affect countless lives. The founding director of Centrum died Monday at age 77.

Mr. Wheeler started the nonprofit arts organization at the decommissioned Army base at Fort Worden in 1973 and remained on its board after he retired in 1996, still actively — in fact, aggressively, some said — fundraising for it. In that time, he made Centrum's name famous for its writers conferences, musical workshops, performances, artist-in-residence program and festivals for jazz, acoustic blues, American fiddle tunes and chamber music.

"He was a really important figure in the arts history of this state," said Seattle Times jazz critic Paul de Barros.

Thatcher Bailey, a former Centrum intern who later served as director, said of Mr. Wheeler: "His great legacy is that he transformed Port Townsend into a significant center for the arts that's known by people all over the world."

Calling Mr. Wheeler a mentor, a father figure and a pal, Bailey said, "He just seemed to have this great ability to connect with people in ways that would help them fulfill their promise. All the people I've talked to in the last few days have told the same story: he gave us all confidence to be in the world successfully."

Born in Wenatchee, Mr. Wheeler played the clarinet and saxophone at Washington State University, where he earned a master's degree in music education. He left a teaching job in Tacoma to achieve a doctorate in the subject at the University of Northern Colorado. Then in 1972, he was hired as a consultant to research turning the base, which had become a state park, into an arts center.

Current director John MacElwee remembers Mr. Wheeler as a great mentor, as well as an intense person. "If you weren't picking up your phone, he'd call everyone else in the office to find out where you were. He was very assertive and aggressive about the arts. He was definitely a powerful force to be reckoned with."

Still, MacElwee noted, Mr. Wheeler had a fine sense of humor, often tested when people confused Centrum with the multivitamin of the same name. " 'We had the name first!' That would be a typical Joe Wheeler response. He'd sort of have a strong comment and then he'd laugh at himself."

Joe Wheeler Jr., of Olympia, said his father "gave me a wide appreciation of all forms of art — from classical music to jazz to Tuvan throat-singers."

When his father first began feeling ill roughly 10 days before he died, "he thought he had an ulcer from worrying about Centrum," his son said. It was liver cancer.

Remembering an attentive father who once set up a hamburger stand for his three children to gain work experience, Wheeler Jr. said, "he called every week to find out what was going on in everyone's life. It tears me up to know I won't be getting that phone call anymore."

Mr. Wheeler's recognition includes a Joseph F. Wheeler Day proclaimed by Gov. Mike Lowry and a key to the city of Port Townsend in 1996, and a Washington State Governor's Arts Award in 1993.

Mr. Wheeler also is survived by his wife, Renate; son Jeff B. Wheeler, of Camano Island; daughter Michelle Blue, of Seattle; stepson Phillip Grad, of Seattle; stepdaughter Wendy Pruett, of Hawaii; and numerous grandchildren. A public service will be held at a time and place yet to be determined.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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