PAR program graduates share their thoughts about Charlie Wheeler

PAR program graduates share their thoughts about Charlie Wheeler

Illinois Press Foundation Director Jeff Rogers reached out to Charlie Wheeler's former students in the University of Illinois Springfield Public Affairs Reporting program, seeking their thoughts about Wheeler or for some comments about what the PAR program has meant for them. Here are their responses.

I can confidently say that the PAR program changed the course of my life. How could it not? And how is Charlie separated at all from the PAR program? To me, they are one and the same. He poured his soul into this work - and always with that kind, humble smile. How can you measure the impact one person makes in this world? I'm not sure, really, but there are a whole lot of PAR grads Charlie impacted who went on and impacted others by seeking truth and sharing stories. His ripple effect was, and is, very real. – Kristy Eckert, PAR Class of 2002

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. His integrity and credibility as a truly excellent journalist and his vast institutional knowledge of Illinois government are second-to-none. Charlie also created a family out of PAR, and went out of his way to keep us connected from the inaugural class right through to today. He is certainly leaving big shoes to fill. – Kate Clements Garry, PAR Class of 1998

Charlie not only teaches students, he’s a student of government. He understands why things happen and why they don’t. You might not always agree with his view, but you have to respect it. He is as well researched as anyone I know. What Charlie instills in his students is that there is no substitute for hard work.  He has always taught us to read the bill.  Don’t take someone’s word for it.  Do your due diligence. – Sean Crawford, PAR Class of 1997

Charlie Wheeler was a class act from the moment I interviewed for the PAR program to the end. He is a first class educator who took a keen interest in his students both professionally and personally. During my time there I stayed at the Embassy, a house he had and rented to students. His teaching was enlightening, but what I remember most was when we would have a party (as we did a lot) he would come and often be the last to leave. I have nothing but fond memories and wish him the best. – Jeremy Moore, PAR Class of 1999

Charlie is a journalism genius. Fewer pure journalists with grit will be produced as a result of his retirement. He taught me to hold public officials and the government accountable, and as a result that’s the reputation I’ve earned and it has sustained my career. The PAR program is a well-kept secret that on the shoulders of Charlie Wheeler has produced esteemed journalists who work at the same news agencies aggressively recruiting students from Northwestern and Mizzou. Congrats on your retirement — the best is yet to come! – Daralene Jones, PAR Class of 2003

Charlie Wheeler is one of the nicest, most sincere, ethical and supportive individuals I have ever come across while a journalist and a lawyer, so I don’t know if that’s saying much, just kidding. But he’s a good man who genuinely loves reporting and he truly cares about the PAR students. He encouraged me to become a journalist and I learned so many invaluable skills from being a journalist through the PAR program that I now utilize as an attorney - interviewing, investigating, writing succinctly, being confident and direct, being professional, being tenacious, accurately reporting, having ethics, using shorthand, negotiating, using an actual phone and calling someone or meeting in-person because you typically get so much more out of that interaction than an email. The list goes on. I’m so happy that I met Charlie Wheeler and had it not been for him, I don’t know if I’d be where I’m at today. Thanks, Charlie. You will be missed but you will always be remembered as one of the best journalists and mentors out there. Cheers!  – Erin Calandriello, PAR Class of 2006

Applying to PAR was the best decision I ever made. I got the Tribune internship, which led to a job at the Tribune, and I know this life-changing opportunity never would've happened without PAR. I referred to my PAR notes from Charlie's class time and time again during my reporting days for reminders about the Illinois school funding formula, details about the state constitution, the ins and outs of campaign finance laws, etc. I talked with Charlie off and on the record many times for background on state government topics. Who can beat his institutional knowledge, candor and wit when it comes to Illinois government?
I'm no longer a reporter, but I'm a better citizen/voter/reader/writer for doing PAR and learning from Charlie. –  Michelle Manchir, PAR Class of 2010

I think many graduates of PAR would share how great of an impact Charlie made on their lives and careers.  For me, he is one of the reasons I have always loved teaching journalism and communication. I recently joined Illinois State University’s School of Communication as a clinical faculty member teaching one class, after several years of teaching online courses elsewhere. On the first day of classes, I always tell my students that many people will influence and impact their careers. They will learn in life, you can never repay those people. The way you acknowledge what they have done for you is by paying it forward, by inspiring the next generation of journalists. Charlie is one of the people who inspired me. I think of him, his never ending kindness, gentle nature, and mentoring, often. I don’t fully believe I can ever repay him, but I hope to always make him proud by paying it forward. – Karen Blatter-Schieler, PAR Class of 2002

PAR has meant the world to me. Nowhere else in this country could I have earned a master's degree while covering a statehouse, while meeting the love of my life, while becoming a skilled public radio reporter. I owe my professional and personal development to the program, and by extension, to Charlie Wheeler. I'll always cherish the few late nights we spent at his office chatting about state government, and how to cover it well. I'm grateful I was among those who fell under Charlie's guiding hand. I wish him and the program continued success. –  Sam Dunklau, PAR Class of 2018

The skills I developed and honed in PAR helped me succeed as a Statehouse journalist, and today working in public relations to further public policy. Charlie is immensely respected for his meticulous approach to understanding and explaining the legislative process, and helping young reporters learn firsthand how to ask the right questions to help shed some light on the complex policies and politics that drive Illinois state government. I will always appreciate Charlie's leadership and dedication to PAR's success, and wish him all the best in his retirement. –  Ryan Keith, PAR Class of 2000

Charlie's program was a really neat opportunity for me. I always wanted to be a news reporter. My parents used to read the Indianapolis Star, and I was always required to watch the 5 p.m. news. Becoming a reporter seemed like a distant dream, but Charlie's program helped that reality come true. I had two good internships under my belt. My college journalism teacher, Mike Loizzo, talked to me about the unique opportunity to get my master's degree. I laughed at it, but the main anchors at WISH-TV in Indianapolis told me to take the opportunity after my internship. I learned a lot about public policy and government reporting at the state capital. These skills were crucial my first journalism job in Kirksville. My first story covered the lieutenant governor's speech to the Missouri Corn Growers Association. I'm now finishing up law school, but Charlie's been a great mentor. It was fun to see him work and report on state government politics. I really enjoyed working my thesis project with him. I learned a lot about government legislation. I hope Charlie has a good retirement. – Ray Carter, PAR Class of 2013

When I first heard about the PAR program, it sounded too good to be true. You get another year in college to figure everything out while preparing for, and eventually getting, an internship and a master's degree? It's as good as it gets. And Charlie put everybody in a position to succeed. More than that, he cares. He cares about the students. He cares about UIS. He cares about the health and integrity of the news business. He cares about the way our state operates. We are all smarter people for knowing Charlie and having the PAR experience. – Pat Milhizer, PAR Class of 2002

There are few people that I personally owe more to than Charlie Wheeler, whose hardboiled but plainspoken wisdom helped me get into public service. The people of Illinois and the country owe him a lot, too, for his years of training the journalists who keep government accountable all across America. The university and Springfield are losing a dedicated watchdog with a long memory. –  Ken Lowe, PAR Class of 2008

I remember the phone ringing in my apartment as a senior in undergraduate school. It was Charlie and he was calling to tell me I’d been accepted into the PAR program. I was stunned. I know I didn’t say much except, ‘Oh my God, thank you!’ I cried tears of joy after we hung up. That phone call changed my entire life. As a child, I lived in rural Pennsylvania. Attending my interview for the PAR program gave me the first opportunity to fly. Moving to the Midwest, covering state government alongside award-winning reporters, while taking graduate classes and making lifelong friends, was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Without that opportunity I would not have been afforded the opportunity to live and work in Washington, D.C.; work in journalism for more than 10 years; teach journalism courses at various universities, including Penn State; or gain my current role as a public information officer for Penn State University Police and Public Safety. I still recall lessons Charlie taught me and apply them in my career as well as teach them to my students. I will always be grateful for Charlie and the opportunity he and the interview committee provided me. – Jennifer (Miller) Cruden, PAR Class of 2005

Being part of the PAR program changed the course of my life. I will always be grateful to Charlie and all that he's done to advance good journalism. He had a wonderful teaching style and will be greatly missed. Good luck in retirement, Charlie. You have more than earned it. – Stephanie Lahnum, PAR Class of 2006

I’m not sure how my college professor found the PAR program, but I remember when he brought it up to me in the spring of 1994, before I graduated, and he convinced me that a one-year intensive program was worth it. He sure was right about that.

I remember how all of us failed our first writing test. It was a real wake-up call. But from there, we learned to write and report. We learned about campaign finance laws as well, and that came in very handy for me later on in my career.

Charlie was like a father to all of us - providing gentle guidance. I’ve appreciated how he’s kept in touch with us all these years. Charlie’s career has been one of great consequence, and I hope that as he reflects on his work thus far, he has some inkling of how much the PAR program - and he - has meant to us.

For he’s a jolly good fellow, indeed. – Dana Perino, PAR Class of 1995

I can’t imagine the PAR program without Charlie, just as i couldn’t imagine the PAR program without Bill Miller before him. My dad taught journalism at Lincoln Land, and I can state that I’ve probably been one of the Green Sheet’s most constant and most faithful readers, from the time I was in grade school up to now. I’ve always been filled with wonder and awe, really, at what the alums are up to, and that awe directly stems from the care and hard work that Charlie, and Bill before him, gave to the program. That knowledge and association built up an immense amount of respect for PAR, and it was probably always a given that I would end up wanting to participate.

I was admitted to the program while Bill was in charge, and I studied under Charlie. Usually one might expect some learning curve bumps from “the new kid,” but while Charlie may have been new at directing the program, he certainly was not new to the capitol or, more important, new to understanding the importance of the program. Those of us in his first class were quite fortunate to be under his tutelage because of that.

It’s been hard to come up with something to say about Charlie because I know everyone is going to talk about what a great guy he is  – caring, gracious, hard-working and dedicated  – and what an amazing reporter he is. 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!” But it’s probably important to hear everyone saying those same things because it underscores what sets Charlie apart from the crowd, and it’s also a testament to the universal respect he has drawn from all quarters in a very hard-knuckle town.

After I started teaching, I would occasionally find myself drawn to Charlie, picking his brain and commiserating via email or after-hours telephone calls, to talk about what was up with what was in the news. And of course he always knew. And if he thought I was off base with a theory, he would gently shepherd me back to a place of better understanding. I always tried to be conscious of his time, because I knew that he wouldn’t be, that he would stay on the phone as long as he thought I needed him to stay.

One of the things I keep coming back to is how important it has been for Illinois to have had someone in the statehouse press corps who was, as it were, present at the creation: There to cover con-con. Just as one of the secrets to Mike Madigan’s genius and staying power has been the fact that he was there for the debate and writing of the “new” constitution, so it was Charlie's genius and staying power to have been the watchdog in the press corps who had been there to report on it as it occurred. There’s literally no way to replace that institutional knowledge, and our journalism will be the poorer for it. Luckily, there are so many PAR-trained journalists running around that we’ll be only one step removed from that knowledge for a couple of decades to come. – Marcel Pacatte, PAR Class of 1994

When I think of Charlie Wheeler, the first word that comes to mind is passion. He has so much of it for a program that has been blessed to have him for so many years. It would be hard to even measure the impact he has had on so many journalists. – Gwyn Bevel, PAR Class of 2005

Charlie is simply the best! He truly cared about our futures, and did everything he could to prepare us for our careers. I absolutely love how he created a networking system with PAR grads so we could all stay in touch, and develop career contacts. Charlie is one of a kind, and deserves this retirement more than anyone I know.   Crystal Britt, PAR Class of 2001

My thoughts about Charlie center around his goodness as a human being. Charlie showed me that you can be a tough journalist and still be a kind person. One of my favorite memories of my PAR year (98-99) was when Charlie came to a Thanksgiving meal at my apartment with my fellow classmates and I who were not with family on the holiday. It was a wonderful evening, and I'm so glad Charlie was able to participate with us! I'll never forget him perched on the edge of my futon (the only seating I had) and telling us stories about the press corps. – Michelle Brutlag Hosick, PAR Class of 1999

If it weren’t for Charlie Wheeler, I wouldn’t be where I am today as a newspaper reporter. Charlie gave everything he had and more to his position. He picked me up from the airport when I first flew out to Illinois for my interview with PAR. He introduced me to his wonderful family while I was there. He even paid my first month’s rent when times were tough in the beginning of the program. He led by example and showed me the importance of integrity in reporting and in my personal life. He treated me and all of my colleagues with respect, even as he held us to high standards. He taught me that I could do anything I set my mind to, given the proper work ethic. I owe so much to him and am honored to be one of his PAR graduates  – Class of 2011! I wish him a wonderful retirement spent with his family. Thank you for everything, Charlie! – Holly Dillemuth, PAR Class of 2011

To me, Charlie is the Public Affairs Reporting program. He is a textbook come to life, filled with reporting advice, history lessons, and an amazing memory for the smallest detail. Charlie is the fatherly leader of journalism in Illinois, raising young journalists from our first walks in the Statehouse to our graduations. As his students have traveled from Springfield to other parts of the country and the world, he has made a lasting mark on the field in which he has devoted his life's work.   
He was kind enough to rent his beautiful, historic home to myself and three other PAR students during my time in the program. My year in Springfield wouldn't be the same without him, or without having such a great group of friends and roommates in the MacArthur House. I stayed in a room where his daughter once lived, and it felt like we became part of his family during our time in Springfield. I hope Charlie's legacy in the Public Affairs Reporting program continues even after his retirement. – Lisa Ryan, PAR Class of 2015

There aren't enough good things I can say about Charlie. He was the best at taking complex government operations and breaking them down for the layman. 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.
I wouldn't be where I am without him or the PAR program. It's kind of crazy to consider how many good journalists went through the program and learned from Charlie. The sheer reach he's had on the journalism community is mind-boggling.

On a personal note, he's one of the best guys I've ever met. He had no reason to believe in me, but he did and it made me the person I am today. He gave me the opportunity to report in the big leagues and the knowledge to do so. If I can be half the reporter and man Charlie is, then I'll consider that a victory. – Seth Richardson, PAR Class of 2015

It's immeasurable how much the PAR program and Charlie Wheeler have impacted my career. I honestly credit much of my growth and success in journalism to Charlie and the program, because he made sure that we were truly prepared for the field.

Charlie is a beloved figure and is totally irreplaceable. His predecessor will have some major shoes to fill. The PAR program was an experience unlike any other, and I'm grateful that I was among those that got the opportunity to study under someone as knowledgeable and honorable as Charlie Wheeler. – Adrienne Crossley, PAR Class of 2015

The Public Affairs Reporting program was life-changing for me, and Charlie Wheeler had a lot to do with that. That's not just because he's knowledgeable and knows pretty much everything about Illinois politics, but I love his authenticity. He gave it to us straight about everything from how the news business works to how the governor at the time was affecting journalism. Charlie's passion for reporting is so pure. It motivated me to give my all because he was watching, and he'd accept nothing less. I once joked with a PAR alum of a different class that "Charlie's nice, but don't let that fool you. He doesn't play." It's so true. He loves his students, but he will not stand for mediocrity. Charlie's guidance helped shape my career and set me on the path to becoming the woman I am today. I wish Charlie all the best in his retirement. He deserves it. – Krista Burris, PAR Class of 2015

Charlie Wheeler’s mentorship, guidance, and teaching empowered my entire career. Charlie’s stewardship of the Public Affairs Reporting program helped generations of journalism students start their careers in an immersive, supportive, and wholly unique setting. I learned immeasurable skills about reporting, gained policy insights, and was introduced to the wacky world of Illinois politics. Charlie provided me, and my classmates, with this incredible opportunity. He himself is a one-of-a-kind resource who I feel lucky to have learned from. The Illinois press corps, media outlets around the country, and a slew of organizations are better off because Charlie wholeheartedly mentored, guided, and supported his students. Here’s to a wonderful retirement. – Alissa Rivera, PAR Class of 2012

Charlie has such a calm and patient demeanor that you can almost be forgiven for losing sight of what a formidable reporter he is. But then he offers a mild observation or razor-tipped question that cuts to the heart of the issue, and you’re reminded of the wealth of knowledge and experience he carries with him.
In my career as a journalism professor, there is nothing more rewarding than sending one of my graduates to Charlie’s PAR program and having them graduate as peers thanks to his thoughtful, meticulous instruction. Government reporting in newsrooms throughout Illinois and beyond is the better because of him. – Sara (Baker) Netzley, PAR Class of 2000

I remember going to Charlie's class feeling totally clueless for not understanding how the legislative process worked. Everything clicked after I started covering the legislature for my internship. I tackled complex issues from concealed carry and an income tax increase to Medicaid reform. I learned to translate legislative jargon into layman's terms. The program tested my patience and persistence as I spent long hours at the Statehouse working to get the story. Those skills still come in handy today. I am forever grateful to Charlie and everyone involved for the incredible experience and lifelong friends I gained from the program. Congrats on a much-deserved retirement, Charlie! – Diane Lee, PAR Class of 2011

I think of Charlie less in the context of an accomplished journalist and educator (which he was), but more in the context of the kind of admirable personal qualities we should all hope to embody.

I arrived to the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) program searching for my place in a world of journalism that lacked diversity - and this lack having previously caused much harm in my previous endeavors at entry into the field. My arrival on the first day of classes as a student in the Class of 1994 didn’t do much to assuage my unease - as I took the last student seat among my fellow students and realized I was the only African-American and minority member of my entire class.
But Charlie was a positive and unifying presence in the program, embodying the type of inclusiveness and open-mindedness that all the students were inspired to follow. Charlie genuinely welcomed me, pushed me to be my best, and always encouraged me when the weight of being the “only one” became too much. He deftly encouraged and supported extracurricular activities among the students that provided the proximity needed for us to get to know each other in all of our humanity. And a year later, the students chose me to lead the procession at graduation. Not long after that, I had my first job offer at a daily newspaper with the encouragement and support of Charlie.

I am still friends and in communication with several of my former PAR classmates, and we share a bond that can only be made when people face and push through their fears together - including fear of differences - to arrive on the other side with a fresh perspective and a newfound respect for each other and our humanity.
The PAR program loses an amazing leader in Charlie. But it is important for others to realize from Charlie’s life how very possible it is for one person to make such a difference and change in the world by just leading by example. – Tanya Marie Bonner, PAR Class of 1994

Charlie Wheeler helps young journalists and communications professionals unmask the magic behind the political scene. If it wasn't for Charlie, I would not be able to thrive in Missouri politics. He prepared me for this season in my life and I am forever grateful. – Brittany Hilderbrand, PAR Class of 2016

I'm not sure where I'd be professionally if it wasn't for Charlie. Newly out of college, working at a small paper and generally stuck in a rut, I heard about the PAR program and talked to Charlie about it. He sold me on the program, and grad school in general. The knowledge, the contacts and the wonderful friendships gained during that year have greatly enriched my life. Thank you, Charlie. – Kate (Thayer) Wegrzyn, PAR Class of 2005

I was not a good candidate for PAR on paper. I barely got out of college, was coming off the lowest point in my life and never thought I'd have a career in journalism but Charlie Wheeler took a shot on me. In doing so, I made up for years of inaction, insecurity and doubt about my future and grew to find a calling in journalism. Were it not for Charlie, I'd be an aimless joke collecting on past due loans. Instead, I have a job I love and a lot to appreciate all because Charlie Wheeler took a chance on me. – Drew Zimmerman, PAR Class of 2016

Charlie was the mentor I didn't know I needed. He provided patient but persistent guidance as he encouraged everyone in my PAR class (2002) to reach their full potential. He made a daunting task - covering Illinois politics – seem feasible for a novice reporter like me. I've had what I consider a successful career in community journalism and much of that is because of what I learned during PAR. – Kate Schott, PAR Class of 2002

Charlie Wheeler and PAR have been invaluable to me. His kindness, genuine interest in me as a student and as a journalist, and guidance have not only benefited me personally and professionally – they've served as an example of the kind of leader I want to be. I'm grateful for all that I've learned from him, and am proud to call him a friend today. We are all better journalists because of Charlie. – Jennifer Fuller, PAR Class of 2001

You can always tell that Charlie is soaking up everything around him and placing the pieces of what's he's learning into the larger puzzle. Every time I'd think I figured out something in Illinois politics, Charlie would kindly give me a history lesson and point me in a better direction. He epitomizes the importance of having reporters who have been on their beats and immerse themselves fully into their work. I can't imagine there are many people, including politicians, who have a better grasp of what's happening in the Statehouse.

Charlie has this mild manner. He's a sweet guy. He sees the positive in people. That's something for a guy who has been in the trenches of Illinois politics for as long as he has. I don't know that I ever heard him say anything bad about anyone, including some of the worst politicians. He might think someone was wrong or had made a bad decision, but his focus remained on that. It's admirable.

Finally, Charlie cares about his students. I've had dozens of teachers and professors in my life, and some I kept in touch with for a while. But I've had two - one from undergrad and Charlie - who have been a part of my life since we met. Charlie wants you to stop by when you're in or passing through Springfield. He wants to hold and kiss your babies. He wants to know that you matter to him. He mattered to me, too. My wife and I met in PAR and have been married more than 13 years. It's no coincidence that our only son is named Charlie. – Brian Wallheimer, PAR Class of 2004

  • 23 January 2019
  • Author: Will Norris
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