By JEFF ROGERS
Director, Illinois Press Foundation
A textbook come to life.
That’s how one of his former students describes Charlie Wheeler, who has been director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at University of Illinois Springfield since 1993.
Lisa Ryan, who graduated from the program in 2015 and now works for a public radio and television news organization in northeast Ohio, described the Wheeler “textbook.”
“Filled with reporting advice, history lessons, and an amazing memory for the smallest detail,” she said.
Ryan is among more than 700 graduates of the program, which has had only three directors in its 47 years.
But when the program’s Class of 2019-2020 assembles in the fall, there will be a new director. Wheeler is retiring in August, having decided that 50 is a nice, even number of years spent in and around journalism. He started his first full-time job in 1969 as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.
“I feel fortunate. I feel blessed,” Wheeler said. “Not many people get the opportunity to make a career out of doing something they like.”
Wheeler is quick to point out his connection with journalism began long before 1969, long before he was alive.
His grandfather, Charles N. Wheeler, was a newspaper reporter, first for Joliet newspapers and eventually for the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News. He covered World War I and the Irish rebellion.
His father, Charles N. Wheeler Jr., was a reporter, copy editor, features editor and assistant city editor for three decades with the Chicago Times and then the Chicago Sun-Times.
Charles N. Wheeler III also seemed destined for a journalism career, writing about the sports teams of his high school, Joliet Catholic, as a part-timer for the Joliet Herald-News. He also wrote for the paper’s year-end “progress edition.”
But when Wheeler headed to St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minnesota, he planned to major in chemistry. The U.S.-Soviet space race sparked an interest in science. Still, he wrote about the St. Mary’s sports teams for the college, and for the Winona newspaper. He ended up getting a degree in English.
“I thought, Do I really want to spend my life in a lab?” Wheeler said.
So, he went to graduate school at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, never having taken an actual journalism course.
But even after getting his master’s degree in journalism there, he delayed the start of his career to serve as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Panama, which he did from 1965 until returning home in 1969 when his father was diagnosed with cancer.
Wheeler was hired as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times in April 1969. One of his first assignments was to cover a rally of the Black Panther Party, a group Wheeler said he knew little of at the time.
“I always felt like I didn’t know enough about what I was going to write about,” Wheeler said. It was a concern he would later turn into a pillar of the PAR program.
Wheeler found his niche at the Sun-Times covering the campaign for delegates to the Constitutional Convention – or “Con-Con” – and the ratification of the state’s fourth Constitution in 1970. It’s difficult to talk to Wheeler at any length about state government without “Con-Con” entering the conversation.
“I made that my beat, if you will,” Wheeler said.
That “beat” became more official when, in 1971, Wheeler began covering state government in Springfield while the Legislature was in session.
“I was the only guy in the newsroom who had been in Springfield before and wanted to go back,” Wheeler said with a smile.
“The beauty in covering the Statehouse is that what you learn today is the foundation for what happens tomorrow. But what happens tomorrow has enough twists that you can never get bored. It’s always exciting. … You wind up learning the darndest things.”
That wealth of knowledge accrued is something Wheeler’s students marvel.
“I’m convinced the only person who knows more about Illinois state government than him is literally Michael Madigan, and he wrote the state Constitution,” said Seth Richardson, who is a 2015 graduate of the PAR program and is now chief political reporter at cleveland.com.
The Sun-Times moved Wheeler to Springfield full-time in 1974, though he’d still work from the Chicago area during primary and general election seasons for statewide and federal offices. He became the Sun-Times’ Statehouse bureau chief in 1987.
Marcel Pacatte, a journalist in residence and assistant professor at Boise State University who was a member of Wheeler’s first PAR class in 1993-94, recalls a story he’d tell his students.
“One of my favorite stories he told is when his editor called from Chicago to tell him that he needed to write a story to answer one the Tribune had, and Charlie was able to say, ‘But I broke that story last week!’”
Being an ‘editor’
Wheeler said he still considers himself to be a reporter, even though he’s been a teacher for 26 years.
He said his role as director of the Public Affairs Reporting program is more like being an editor, with the students being reporters.
But there’s another role Wheeler plays in the program that is apparent in the way past students still speak of him, with reverence and affection.
“Charlie was like a father to all of us, providing gentle guidance,” said Dana Perino, a 1995 PAR graduate who now is an anchor and co-host on the Fox News Channel. “I’ve appreciated how he’s kept in touch with us all these years.”
Wheeler recently completed and sent to all grads and others the annual “Green Sheet.” The holiday-season newsletter shares greetings from a number of PAR grads and as much contact information as possible about each alum.
His connection to PAR reaches back to 1973, when the Sun-Times had its first intern from the program’s first class. Wheeler got familiar with how the program worked, what it taught, by working with interns every spring in the Sun-Times’ Statehouse bureau.
“I enjoyed working with the students, so when the position opened up” it was a natural step to take, Wheeler said.
“It wasn’t all that different because, in a sense, I was doing the same stuff that I had been doing as a reporter – taking complicated stuff and explaining it for readers.”
The PAR program was founded in 1972 by former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, who was lieutenant governor at the time and had just lost the Democratic primary for governor. Simon had been a newspaper editor and publisher in his earlier years, and decided to bring both his journalistic and political knowledge into creating a program that trained young reporters to cover state government. It was a novel idea at the time, Wheeler said, and the more “avant-garde” Sangamon State University (now UIS) was a perfect birthing place for the program.
Bill Miller, an award-winning radio reporter, took over as director in 1974. The program became prominent in both legislative and journalistic circles during Miller’s tenure.
“When my fellow Statehouse reporters learned I had been chosen to succeed Bill, they asked me how it felt to be taking a job where all I could do was mess it up, so high was the regard in which Bill and PAR were held,” Wheeler wrote in this year’s “Green Sheet.”
Wheeler did anything but mess up the program. It’s thrived, and continued to help place former students in prominent journalism jobs throughout the country. The first semester is sort of a “boot camp” for budding Statehouse reporters, where students are drilled on the important but often mundane issues central to state government. Think property taxes and school funding.
Wheeler wants to be sure his students aren’t like he was when he was a young reporter, feeling like he didn’t know enough about the subjects he was assigned to write about.
“Charlie not only teaches students, he’s a student of government,” said Sean Crawford, the news director at the college’s WUIS and a member of the PAR Class of 1997. “He understands why things happen and why they don’t. … He is as well researched as anyone I know.”
In the spring, students get to apply that knowledge as interns with newspapers, TV stations and wire services covering the Statehouse. They work as full-time reporters from January until they graduate.
“I feel the courses are geared toward preparing students for their internships, but also for their careers later,” Wheeler said.
“If you can cover the Legislature in Illinois, you can cover just about anything else. Maybe not the White House these days. …”
Said Kate Clements Gary, a 1998 PAR graduate who now is a director of communications and marketing at the University of Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters: “Charlie’s retirement is the end of an era. He taught a generation of reporters not just how to be better interviewers, writers and investigative reporters, but why our role as watchdogs was so essential to democracy.”
That role of being a watchdog is one that Wheeler worries is slipping away from news organizations that have been cutting into reporting resources.
The top challenge to the PAR program, he said, is something that’s out of its control.
“The attrition in the Statehouse in terms of full-time bureaus is a challenge,” Wheeler said. “It’s not just in Illinois, it’s across the country.
“There’s a new generation of ownerships that have less of an understanding that the newspaper is a community resource.”
That news bureaus have mostly disappeared from the Statehouse has impacted the PAR program as well as news consumers. This year’s class has only seven students – four in print and three in broadcast – in great part because there was only that number of internships available.
“It’s a challenge for the program, but in a broader sense it’s a challenge for the industry, for our nation,” Wheeler said. “If you don’t have newspapers there chronicling what’s going on … people can’t be engaged citizens.”
That Wheeler reporting legacy? It will have to wait at least another generation. Wheeler’s children work in unrelated fields.
As for the PAR program, Wheeler said the university is committed to its continuing, and is actively working to hire his successor. And he vows to stay involved, whether it’s as an adviser to the next director, continuing to show up at the Capitol a few days a week as he does now, or working in his role as a board member for the Illinois Press Foundation and helping it grow its new state government news service.
“Despite its downsizing, the program still provides aspiring journalists a unique opportunity to gain professional experience in a very demanding reporting environment, all the while earning a graduate degree,” Wheeler said. “Now someone else will have the honor of bearing the PAR standard. … May he or she have as wonderful and rewarding a tenure as I!”