Joe E. Wheeler – The Good Shepherd

Like many Military Brats, I left my family to begin my own life. This essay covers 6 years of my life, living in Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning, and my memories of Joe E. Wheeler, who touched the lives of many people in the military, their spouses, Military Brats and the community in which he lived.

Author’s Note: Transitioning from living on bases and posts to the civilian life is no easy task. But military towns help to make it easier in some ways, though bases which you can no longer use because your ID card has expired long ago are painful reminders of the way your life used to be.

I am fortunate that I chose to return to the U.S. from living with my family in Germany, to Columbus, Georgia and fortunate to have answered an ad in the paper that led me to new friends, new opportunities and a mentor.

Columbus, Georgia, 1975

My memories of Joe E. Wheeler began on a bright, spring day in Columbus, Georgia, in 1975. I pulled my car into the tiny parking lot in front of the small, red-bricked, almost wedge-shaped building.

The green and white sign over the front door read, “Diversified Printing Services.”

This was the building I had been looking for, nestled within a piece of land where Camille Drive and Cherokee Avenue merged—or split—depending on the direction you were driving.

My father was a career Army NCO and while I could have stayed with my family and continued working in Germany, I had flown back to Columbus, to find a job that would support me, and to begin my college studies.

My family had lived in Columbus when I was about 4 to age 6. My father had been a drill instructor at Fort Benning before we moved to Germany in 1962. My mother and father had also bought a house in Columbus, in 1967, where my mother, brother and two sisters lived during the year when my father was serving in Viet Nam. For a nomadic Military Brat, Columbus was was my adopted home.

I was a bit nervous as I opened the front door and felt the rush of cold air.

Hello, I’m Carol.”

I was greeted in the cozy front office by Carol who looked up from her typing and smiled broadly. I introduced myself, and she ushered me into one of the two seats in her office, then gave me a job application to complete.

A voice called, “Carol—what’s Bill’s phone number?” The voice came from a doorway to the right of Carol’s desk.

“Joe, how many times do I have tell you?” Carol said, “It’s . . . “ and then she rattled off the number from memory without looking up from what she was typing.

I completed my job application, printing as neatly as I could. I was glad to have three previous jobs and two high schools to fill in the many blanks on the job application. I knew I was young, but was more experienced in the printing trade than most, but I didn’t have a clue how much I did not know.

The conversation droned on in what I believed to be Joe Wheeler’s office. Finally the phone conversation ended, and Carol took my application and disappeared through a doorway. A few minutes later Carol appeared again and ushered me into the next room.

I quickly glanced around the wood paneled room. I immediately noticed one wall was literally covered with plaques and framed certificates.

I’m Joe Wheeler. Pleased to meet you.”

When Joe stood up to shake my hand—he stood much taller than I, and suddenly, I thought of one of my uncles who was 6 foot 4 inches tall, and his two basketball playing sons who were taller still. All the men on my mother’s side of the family were tall, like Joe Wheeler, so his height did not bother me in the least, unlike his firm handshake.

“Vann Baker, “ he said glancing at my job application, then back at me. “What do you know about the printing business?” He waved at me to sit in one of the chairs by his desk.

The third formal job interview of my life had begun, and we chatted about where I had lived, what my interests were and where I saw myself in a few years. While attending high school in Frankfurt, Germany, I had done some printing of tests for a couple of teachers, using some basic printing machines and stencils, so I was not totally unfamiliar with the basics of printing.

I had also co-edited an “underground” newspaper when I lived at Fort Knox, and had typed and put together the small publication using a typewriter and and assembling artwork using rubber cement. I did not think it was appropriate to mention that fact during the interview, however.

“Your application says you can type 45-plus words a minute,” Joe said.

“Yes sir. Even faster on an IBM Selectric.”

Joe’s phone phone rang twice during the interview, and he took the calls. I sat quietly, trying to look like a bright job applicant, but wondering what the other half of the conversation was and what was being said. I could hear a muffled mechanical droning which was the printing presses on the other side of the office wall, and I could barely make out someone shouting over the noise.

While talking on the phone, Joe leaned way back in his chair. I thought for sure the chair would tip over, and I knew if it happened I would probably laugh and lose my chance to be hired.

I couldn’t help but notice that practically every square inch of his desk surface was covered in stacks of paper, large envelopes (which I later learned were printing job jackets), paper sample swatches and file folders.

After a few minutes, Joe finished his call, then stood up then took me through his office into the art department area, and then showed me around the rest of the areas that comprised Diversified Printing Services, explaining briefly how the printing process worked from typesetting and artwork to camera work, plating, printing and to the end of the process including folding and delivery, and introduced me to his employees along the way.

The building was divided into two halves roughly, with one side consisting of the front office, Joe’s office, the art department and the camera room, typesetting, negative stripping and plating area. The presses, paper storage, folder, paper cutter and the bindery area made up the “loud” side of the shop—with the constant, mechanical press and folder sounds.

As we walked around the press room area, the smell of solvents and printing ink grew stronger, and I stared in amazement at all the equipment, boxes of paper and supplies which filled the room.

It has been said that printers have ink flowing in their veins, which may be true, but I believe it gets into you through your nostrils, and I had my first real exposure to the printer’s life that day.

Come back in a week.”

We found our way back to Joe’s office, where he took me aside and gave me his first piece of advice. “I strongly suggest that you go back to the employment agency who sent you over,” he said, “and fire them.” He explained how this employment agency had found his original ad in the paper, reworded it, and how employment agencies would then insert themselves into the employment process and simply take a couple of months salary for their fee.

“Save yourself some hard-earned money—just wait a week and to come back and reapply for the job,” he said. And so I did.

Like a good shepherd, Joe was always looking out for the best interests of the sheep who found their way into his flock. I was not the first, and I would not be the last he would invite into the business of printing, and the world in which he lived.

A week later I filled out my name on my time card, punched in, and began working in the bindery department, under the watchful eyes of Joan, not realizing this was a “trial by fire” process which many others had tried and failed.

Joan was an English lady who had met and married an American soldier stationed in England, had started a family and moved around from base to base, and had lived several years in Japan after WW II. Like many career Army men, her husband, Ray, had retired in a military town, where he worked at the local Western Auto to supplement his retirement pay.

Military Ties

Columbus, Georgia sits adjacent to Fort Benning, which is an Army training base with about 182,000 acres. Fort Benning reminded me of Fort Knox, where I had lived for four years in the early 1970s, while my dad went to work every day wearing his “smokey bear” drill instructor hat and turned recruits into soldiers. Since I was still a military dependent, I was able to go on post and use the various facilities like the craft shop, PX and Commissary. Knowing the post was nearby helped me in my transition from military life to civilian life.

While working in the bindery, one of the first jobs I had at Diversified was collating sections of a publication called Communique, which Joan would later stitch together to form a 16 page newsletter. Later I learned the newsletter was written and edited by the Officer’s Wives Club of Fort Benning, however, we did all the typesetting, printing, finishing and mailing.

Like many other servicemen, Joe had found his way to Columbus, Georgia by way of the Army. In the late 1950s, Joe had been drafted into military service after graduating from college in Kentucky, and found himself stationed at Fort Benning.

Joe was, I am sure, counting down the days until he would be a civilian again, and discovered a creative way to speed up his exit from the Army. Joe found an obscure Army regulation which would allow a serviceman to be released from his obligation, provided the country was not at war and there was a legitimate need for the skills or education the soldier had.

Joe had learned that Cusseta, Georgia desperately needed a high school principal, and Joe applied for the job and was hired. Joe had taught Industrial Arts which included silk screen printing after graduating college prior to his military service, which may explain his later interest in printing.

After working as a high school principal, Joe worked for Columbus Productions, a local printing company, for several years. In 1969 Joe started his own printing company, Diversified Printing Services.

Like many local businesses, Joe had found opportunities to serve the military as a civilian and to find printing customers.

The Golden Heritage Cookbook, which was created by the Officers’ Wives Club of Fort Benning, was printed at Diversified Printing Services. The cookbook was sold as a fundraiser for the club, and was one of the larger printing jobs which was reprinted several times.

A few years later, in 1980, Joe was asked to help bring the Wings of Silver cookbook to life, which was spearheaded by an officers’ wife who had been an editor of the Communique a few years earlier, and was inspired by The Golden Heritage Cookbook, but with the focus being on the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado, Springs.

New opportunities

I somehow survived my first week, then my second week, and third week, however, I thought I would be standing on my feet helping Joan for the next few months, as there was no end to the work coming out of the presses, and it seemed as if I was her number one bindery assistant.

One day Joe called me over to the quiet side of the building, where the constant noise from the press was reduced to a low roar and showed me a table and several boxes filled with copies of advertising contracts.

“I have a little project I want to talk with you about.” He sat down. “Pull up a chair.”

I was glad to get off my feet and to have some relief from the constant roar of the press.

The art of “paste up”

“Vann, this is a paste up table,” he said, pointing to one of the two portable drafting tables which had acrylic parallel bars going across the board’s surface. “The object is to take the type that’s been set and to wax the back of it and paste it into place on these artwork boards.”

He picked up an X-Acto Knife. “Once you wax the back side of the type, you need to cut it out without slicing the type—or your fingers. We keep some band-aids around here somewhere so if you do get cut, try not to bleed on anything.”

Joe gave me a quick demonstration, placing the type on special pre-printed paste up boards that had some black lines printed showing the edge of the page and ads, as well as very faint, light blue guidelines within the paste up board.

“You have make sure the type is centered, but you can’t just judge by eye,” he said after deftly moving a small block of waxed type on the board, then using the parallel bar to make sure it was perfectly horizontal on the page. He held up what appeared to be a metal ruler, “Use the pica pole to check to make sure the type is centered.” He did so.

“When everything is perfect, you cover the artwork so you won’t scratch the type, then use this little beveled stick to put some pressure on the artwork to make sure nothing will move.”

He looked up at me and said, “You think you can do that?”

“Sure, I can do that,” I replied, and so I began work on the annual Shriner’s program, which was nearly a hundred pages, and was mostly ads. This one project would occupy me full time for the next couple of months. And so my apprenticeship as a graphic artist began.

Another trial by fire, except by this time I was working on my own, with minimal supervision. After a few days I got the hang of basic paste up and also realized the boxes of materials for the program was a mess. Nothing was organized and I needed to figure out how many pages we had and how to track what work had been done.

Carol would check up on me once in a while, offering a few tactful suggestions, and one day led to the next.

After finishing my first big project, I worked part-time in the art department, typesetting a few newsletters, and helping out with paste up projects. When the graphic artist who was working part-time quit, I found myself in charge, and for the most part, retired from the bindery department.

During the first few weeks I didn’t see much of Joe and it was hard to gauge how well I was doing, but once in a while, he would take several of us over to some of the best places in Columbus for lunch, and his conversation would turn to just about everything, from politics, sports, and to religion. I learned that Joe enjoyed a lively discussion—and sometimes a debate—on just about any topic.

This is a rush job.”

Joe was not your typical “boss” in the sense that he was not in the office managing all the details of a business all through the day. In fact, he was away from the business quite a bit, meeting new prospective customers, selling printing, networking and putting in countless hours with a number of charities and organizations—which explained the wall of plaques and certificates covering his office wall.

When he came to work there was often a sense of urgency as he went into his office, closed the door and dealt with pricing jobs, ordering paper, returning phone calls, and sometimes dealing with employees who were not pulling their weight.

Every few days, Joe would suddenly burst into the art department, waving a job jacket and announcing that he had a rush job. He would give me a summary of what was involved in the project, then hand me the job jacket, which had precise size and instructions for artwork and printing, as well as a sample of the job or the previous artwork I was to work from. There was also a date that the job was written up.

More often than not, rush jobs were simply regular printing projects that had not managed to find their way from Joe’s desk to my desk. Rush jobs often meant the opportunity for overtime, which meant time-and-a-half pay, and a slight bump in the weekly pay checks we received. While a rush job was stressful and invariably meant working into the evening to complete it and a scramble the next day to make up for other promised jobs that were pushed aside, there was a silver lining

Occasionally, Joe would go on vacation with his family, and would spend an entire day going over all the stacks of papers, books and other materials that covered his desk. Often he would work into the late evening the night before he would leave town. The next day we would all stare in amazement at the clean, empty desk in Joe’s office, and I would wonder how I would work through all the many work orders he placed on my desk—almost all marked as “rush” jobs.

It was way too quiet while he was away. His office phone was silent, and I kept expecting him to burst through his door into the art department area, but he did not.

Joe would call in daily and speak with Carol, who was his eyes and ears while he was away from the office. She would relay to him any important issues needing his attention and usually she would report that things were basically under control. Occasionally there was a true crisis where a customer was unhappy or a promised delivery date could not be met, but usually it was business as usual. However, without Joe’s laugh and his coming and going through the art department, each day was monotonous and Diversified was just not the same without him.

Diversified—and more

I think the name “Diversified” was chosen by Joe because he was interested in all manner of printing, from letterpress, to offset printing, silk-screen printing, hot foil stamping and everything related to printing.

Diversified printed the programs for the community plays presented by the Springer Theatre Company, which were a challenge, especially with the customer making changes to program text the evening before opening night.

Besides working on the programs, I was involved in creating the artwork and actual silk-screen printing of all of the posters for plays such as Carousel, A Christmas Carol, God’s Favorite, to name a few, produced from about 1976-1981.

While I was in high school, I had learned about the basic techniques of silk-screen printing from one of my teachers at Frankfurt American High School. We had used hand cut stencils and strong chemicals to adhere the stencil to the printing frame. However, at Diversified Printing Services, Joe taught me how to create photo stencils—using a photo-film transfer process that was water based, however the inks we used to print were solvent based. Eventually, I was involved in printing everything from political bumper stickers to yard signs, to cookbook covers and posters.

I loved the silk-screen printing process, and though we had a huge exhaust fan, all of the inks we used for printing with silk-screens smelled and usually all of this printing was done after hours on the weekend. The vapor “hangovers” the next day were terrible, and I was thankful I didn’t smoke.

For the Sesquicentennial celebration (the 150th anniversary) for Columbus, Georgia, someone had come up with the idea of having some of the parade participants wearing costumes with headlines and text from the local paper, the Ledger-Enquirer.

Joe had volunteered to take care of getting the graphics printed on cloth. Once the cloth was printed, some of the costume makers from the Springer Theatre Company would cut the cloth and sew it into costumes. As the “master” silk screen printer, I was going to turn the white cloth into the final printed material, but Joe was going to be involved. He coordinated the screen registration process so we could print a large area, then move the screen over and print another section without smudging what had just been printed, so the final cloth print design would appear seamless.

Drying the printed cloth took some doing. Usually we printed posters and other flat work, and placed them on a vertical drying rack. In this case, we had yard after yard of material. With several people assisting, the printed cloth was carefully moved away from the large printing table and the cloth eventually stretched through the typesetting area and into the art department area.

The costumes looked great from what I saw in a newspaper photograph after the parade. With the exception of some t-shirts for a pizza place, we did not print on fabric again while I was working at Diversified Printing Services, though we all were prepared for the challenge.

Back roads

In the 1970’s there was no Interstate 185 to provide a more direct route to Atlanta, as there is today. Going to Atlanta meant taking the long, scenic drive of over two hours, with frequent stops in impossibly tiny towns, and slowing down to drive around the courthouse squares that many small towns in Georgia have.

In the early days of Diversified Printing, Joe had built much of his business with savings and loan and bank customers, and he would make trips to Atlanta every few months to keep in touch with customers and to pick up envelopes and other supplies from wholesale sources.

Joe invited me to come along with him on a number of road trips to Atlanta to help out with the driving, and to provide me some extra “overtime” pay. It gave me an opportunity to see what was along the back roads between Columbus and Atlanta, and an opportunity to talk with Joe about his business and how he got into printing.

When Joe was in the office, he was often pre-occupied with making price quotes, ordering paper, and talking to customers, and he was almost never there for lunch, which was when most of the employees would take a break. Having a couple of hours to and from Atlanta to talk about some of the employee problems and some idea exchanging was good for me as an employee who had begun to think about Diversified as more than just a job.

Joe would often share stories of where he grew up and how he made his own way, and how he had found his way to Columbus, by way of military service. I had started working on my fine arts degree and during the first two years at Diversified, I both worked and went to college, so we had some common ground.

Joe was the quintessential entrepreneur. In addition to having ideas about how to make his own business better, he had all sorts of ideas for starting other businesses. We would often find ourselves talking about the print shop, with most conversations revolving around work problems that did not have an easy solution, so we would talk about politics, where the world was headed and religion.

While I had joined a small Baptist church soon after I came to Columbus, Joe often invited me to be his guest at the Mayor’s prayer breakfast and to come to his church. Joe attended Evangel Temple, and was a beehive of activity with musical events, special guests and other events. He would also remind me that there were some nice single girls there, but between my college studies and full-time work, I didn’t have time for a social life beyond church and visiting with my Grandmother.

I liked the fact that Joe was not pushy about his relationship with God and his personal beliefs, and we had some great discussions about the Bible, serving God, the colorful history of Phenix City, the Illuminati and Free Masons, and everything else in between.

Suddenly, we would find ourselves in Atlanta—the long trip made short from our chatting away.

Getting “drafted” by Joe Wheeler

Joe had a way with words and an easy-going manner that made you let down your defenses, and more than once I found myself volunteering for organizations he was involved in.

In addition to the many service organizations he was active in, Joe served on the board of directors of The Springer Opera House. One year he recruited me to help out with some stage set work. Since the Springer was community theatre, it relied heavily on volunteers to help build and paint the sets, act in the plays and work behind the scenes to make the stage come alive.

“A lot of Columbus’ finest debutantes volunteer at the Springer. Remember Vann, you can marry a rich girl as soon as you can a poor one,” he had said with a twinkle in his eye. A couple of weeks later he asked me if I had met any of the local debutantes, which I had. I complained to Joe that most were a bit plain looking. Joe broke out into a big grin and said, “Vann—I said they were debutantes—not beauty queens!” He was right, of course.

I had acted in one play while in high school, and knew the basics of what went on in a production, but the the Springer Opera House was a whole new world. The productions were huge, and required a small army of volunteers.

I initially worked on a couple of productions helping out with set construction and some odd tasks, and later I was part of the crew who lowered and raised sets during productions. Eventually I served as the “fly crew chief.” on several productions.

Some of my fondest memories come from the volunteer work at the Springer Theatre Company, and the “cast of characters” I met back stage, all of which I owe to Joe Wheeler.

One year, for the March of Dimes, I think, there was to be some “treasure” chests spread around Columbus at different business locations, which were padlocked. Donors to the cause would receive a key and if they unlocked the chest, I believe there were some prizes that could be claimed.

I volunteered to make the chests. At this time, I still had access to Fort Benning via my I.D. card and I loved going out to the main craft shop, where the post had a dream woodworking facility. I drew up some plans and spent a Saturday making the parts for the boxes out of pine and another day assembling the boxes using large brass tacks, as I recall.

It felt great to deliver the finished boxes to Joe and ultimately to the cause, and the giving of my time was much more rewarding than writing a check to the organization.

Other lost sheep . . . and an occasional goat or donkey

From the art department area, if the presses were not running full blast, I could hear Carol answering the phone or talking with a customer who may have come in to look at wedding invitation examples.

I could often tell when customers came in to meet with Joe, but sometimes someone would come by who was neither a customer or a job applicant. Joe would often emerge from his office and give a quick introduction, then show around a former employee through the shop.

It was like a student returning to the school where a favorite teacher still taught. I later realized that these were students of sorts, people who had been mentored by Joe and who had moved onto new jobs and challenges in life, but remembered Joe, and wanted to see him again.

During my six years of apprenticing at Diversified, many “lost sheep” found their way through the front door and into Diversified Printing Services. Some were young college students, some were people from Joe’s church who were struggling financially, and others were business acquaintances who had lost their job and needed something to do until a full-time position in their field of expertise came along.

There was a young pressmen-in-training who, for several months, filled large trash cans daily with printing that could not be given to the customer. He cost the company a lot of money in lost time and materials, and was finally let go after the better part of a year. Later, another young pressman managed to get a finger caught inside a press while he was cleaning the press. A week or two later he decided the printing life was not for him.

We had a local fireman who would come in on his days off and run the larger secondary press from time to time, saving his money so he could go down to Florida and bet on the greyhound dog races and in the local bars.

On another occasion, Joan had a helper for a couple of weeks who was about to join the Marines in an effort to give himself some direction in life—I suspected it was also to move away from a bad family situation, and while I knew military life was not for me, I knew for some it was a good match.

Leaving the flock

Carol left Diversified Printing in 1978 or 1979, and the dynamics of Diversified was never the same again. While Joe was the driving force behind the company, the six full time employees made up the rest of the team. Carol had been Joe’s first full time employee, and she also did service work for several of the organizations Joe belonged to over the years and was great with customers.

Carol did give Joe a special going-away present—a pop open phone directory with all of Joe’s many contacts and their phone numbers which Carol had carried around in her head for so long. Joe would not admit it, but losing Carol hit him hard. And typical of Joe, he simply threw himself into his work—life went on.

After Carol’s departure, there were a series of office assistants, ” office managers,” receptionists, former secretaries and others who tried to wear all the hats that Carol wore—none could quite pull it off. Everyone in the company missed Carol’s great sense of humor and ability to work with difficult customers.

Over the next few months after Carol’s departure, we had an office manager who made customers wait while they finished talking to their boyfriends on the phone, and another candidate for Carol’s position who would only answer the phone and refused to work with customers—she lasted a week somehow. When we were between replacements for Carol we all pitched in answering the phone and for a while I typed invoices and I worked with customers on many occasions.

Some of the new hires only lasted a few days, but several managed to get the hang of things and lasted several months. For the next few years we continued to have part-time people who came and went regularly, helping in different departments, and others who came back when we had large bindery projects, to work under the watchful eye of Joan.

While Joe was certainly a generous man, with a huge heart for his fellow man, he was human and often only saw the good—and potential in people—overlooking faults in others, even if those faults cost the company money.

Often Joe would keep an employee on the payroll far too long, giving them several chances to improve and turn the corner, but often they did not, and eventually they left, with some being fired, but only after being given three chances or more to redeem themselves.

The headaches of owning a business

It has been said that owning your own business can be a real headache, and with Joe, this was true—literally. I can remember clearly the first time Joe come in to work late one morning with one of his migraine headaches. He would sit in his office with the lights off and the window blinds closed. He would get physically ill, then leave early to go home and sleep. A day or two later, rested and refreshed, he would be himself again.

At first I thought it was just that Joe was involved in too many outside projects and that the stress of it all was to blame. The migraine headaches came and went once a month, in response to the monthly cash flow of the business.

During the mid-to-late-1970s, Joe dealt with double digit inflation, soaring paper costs due to dramatic increases in the price of fuel, not to mention increasingly higher taxes and a recession.

Like other printing companies, Diversified had many customers who would place orders and then pay after delivery, and some customers who had credit accounts, sometimes paying 45 or more days after the customer’s job had been printed and delivered. This meant monthly roller coaster cash flow cycles and weeks where more money would go out in payroll and to suppliers than was coming into the business.

Losing well-trained help also took its toll on Joe and the rest of us. Since we were such a small company, if anyone was sick for a day or heaven forbid, off on vacation, the rest of the employees had to be prepared to step in and help out.

What I learned from Joe Wheeler

Joe taught me that if you put your customers first and put in 120% effort and provided value to what you are doing, your customers will come back again and again. It’s true. I saw this again and again with many customers who were totally loyal to Joe Wheeler.

I also learned from Joe that complicated technical processes, like printing, when broken down into smaller parts, were not that mysterious.

I learned that attention to detail is what makes the difference between mediocre work and exceptional work.

One of Joe’s favorite sayings was, “I learned a long time ago to get the job order first, then figure out how to do it later.” This explains whey Joe was always taking on very challenging printing projects or under-bidding other printers, which kept all of his employees on on their toes and gave him a competitive edge over other printers. This also taught me to be creative in many different ways.

Joe taught me that listening is sometimes more important that talking about what you know. By listening to customers and understanding what they want or need, you can better serve them. By listening to employees, who sometimes are just frustrated with their work load or who may have a gripe about a fellow employee, the employer can help resolve problems, once they have all the information they need.

Joe also taught me that as the times change, technology changes and you have to adapt or go out of business. During my time at Diversified, the IBM Composer, sort of a Selectric typewriter on steroids, was later replaced by a Compugraphic IV TG, a phototypesetting machine, full of tiny integrated circuit chips, which allowed us to set type faster and offer a better end product.

I also learned from Joe that when you try something new, or when you give someone a chance who is still learning, mistakes will be made, but if you learn from the mistake that’s okay, but if you repeat the mistakes on a regular basis, that is not okay.

A small family business is not all business. Family is a big part of it, and there is often a conflict between making time for family and keeping up with the work flow and making sure new orders keep coming in.

Running a small business is about being creative in many areas and there are headaches, but owning your own business can be very rewarding, especially when it brings interesting people and challenging projects your way.

Moving on

In 1981, and after 6 years of my apprenticeship in printing at Diversified Printing Services, I met with Joe to gave my two weeks notice. As a Military Brat, the longest I had stayed in any one place was four years. I was more than ready to move to a new place, and to face new challenges.

I was expecting Joe to try and talk me out of leaving and I was prepared to defend my decision, as he often would provide counter arguments or alternate ways of looking at what was being discussed.

However, he just listened quietly as I explained that I felt I had to complete my college work, and with the next few years looking bleak during the economic transition from the Carter to Reagan presidency, completing my degree made good sense from a career perspective. Also, it was extremely important to me to finish what I had started. A degree in art would allow me to move from a graphic artist to an art director and increase my opportunities and salary in the future.

“Well,” Joe said, “I’m sorry that you are leaving us. We’ll miss you.”

I put what I had learned at Diversified Printing Services to good use—while I attended Auburn University I worked about 35 hours a week for the University Printing Service, and three years later I completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

My dad had retired from the Army after 24 years of service, to Columbus in 1981, and I made the hour’s drive over from Auburn about every other week to visit with my family and to help my dad with the never ending weekend projects that came with owning a fifteen year old house.


Though I often came over to Columbus on a Friday afternoon, I found it hard at first to just drop by and visit with Joe and my former co-workers at Diversified Printing. I am not sure why exactly. Perhaps it was that I felt guilty because I knew how hard it was to find experienced help in printing, and especially how hard it is to find people who see the company they work for as more than a place of employment. Or maybe it was that I had left the flock, and had I had my own goals beyond Diversified Printing Services now.

I did stop by to visit once or twice before I graduated from Auburn, early in 1984, for a few minutes and see what new sheep the good shepherd had added to his flock, and to see some familiar faces as well. While there were some new faces there, the familiar chatter of the press and the folder, and the smell of ink on paper was just the same, as was Joe’s friendly smile and welcoming handshake.

The last time I saw Joe was sometime in the mid-1990s, at a conference in Atlanta. He looked much the same as I remembered him, but with some gray hair. While in his early 60s, he was still trim and stood tall. His handshake was still like a vise.

We exchanged highlights of the past few years in our lives. I mentioned I was using a Macintosh computer to do design and typesetting work and he filled me in on some recent projects and new equipment he had bought. It was amazing how the computer had found its way into the business world and into the printing process in such a short time.

When I learned a few years later that Joe had become ill and passed on, I didn’t want to accept it at first, but eventually I did. Joe Wheeler’s grave is in Parkhill Cemetary, and when I go to Columbus from time to time I visit my parent’s grave there, my grandparents, and Joe’s grave site as well.

Just wondering aloud . . .

Today, I am left wondering how many of us there are who have been part of Joe’s flock over the years. How many of us learned the printing trade or just passed through the small red-bricked building over the years?

While Joe may have just been an employer to many, to me he was a father figure, a kindred spirit, a friend and a mentor—someone who wanted each of us to do our best to learn something new, and to reach our full potential.

Joe taught me more than just the printing trade, but also how to work with people, how to be part of a team, and how to be flexible and willing to take on new challenges, and why community service was important.

Looking back, I am glad that I answered that tiny ad in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer back in 1975, which led me to Joe Wheeler. And I am glad that he saw a young seventeen-year old as a diamond in the rough—someone with potential, and I am thankful for his mentoring, advice and all the valuable life lessons learned at Diversified Printing Services.

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  1. Dear Vann…Sorting through old papers last evening, I found Joe’s name and address and, remembering fondly my association with him, Googled him this morning….voila!…your article appeared.  I was the editor of the Golden Heritage Cookbook at Ft. Benning, and though Joe was our publisher, he was such a special friend to me and my husband. Your article brought back many fond memories.  I was sorry to learn of his passing and hope that Nell is doing well.  Thank you for your wonderful insight into a very special man.  Joan Stoltz

  2. Vann,

    I can’t explain why, but this morning I woke up with Joe Wheeler on my mind; I guess it was because of the association I had with him in 1983 as he helped me navigate the political terrain in Columbus Georgia.  I had just graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Political Science and was stationed at Ft. Benning, GA for my Infantry Officer’s Basic Course.  I was a Republican and wanted to become involved during my off duty hours with helping to get Ronald Regan re-elected.  

    I don’t recall the details of where or how I met this most affable and enjoyable man but I imagine it was in one of his circles of friends that enjoyed talking about government.  Joe was a stalwart political activist, in the otherwise sleepy Columbus community, and immediately took an interest in my recent graduation from Auburn.  He invited me to parlay my wet ink diploma into a position as office manager for a newly minted organization he called “Friends for the President”.  It was organized in a former H&R Block office at a local strip mall.  I devoted all of my available time to Joe’s vision of a nonpartisan group working to get Democrats, Independents and Republicans behind Reagan.  Joe was quite influential and was able to attract the likes of Nancy Woodruff (of Coca Cola heritage) and a few others to get financing for the endeavor.  It was epic, just like Joe.  

    Within a matter of weeks that office was humming and volunteers were flooding in to work a phone bank that was continually buzzing with calls to find friends for the President in time for the November 1984 election. The rest of the story is political history as Reagan was swept back in for another four years.  Joe and I celebrated with all of our friends, everyone loved Joe. We then went on to take the good “conservative” fight to the local county political arena.  We worked with a lot of the local people who became involved in their community and helped fill the committee with our slate of candidates.  I learned more about the real workings of politics in six months with Joe Wheeler than I did pursuing a four year degree in political science.  Joe was full of life and had a zeal that was contagious.

    I also enjoyed meeting his wife and family.  Nell was a stalwart, charming and gracious woman.  The stories she could tell of the people and things that happened all around them.  It took a special lady to be with a man like Joe.  And perhaps Joe was able to be such an influence in the lives of so many people because of Nell.  I was too young, only twenty three at the time, to understand the nuances involved between such strong family ties.  I just remember feeling these people were the salt of the earth, and while I only spent a limited amount of time with his son Brad, we also got along famously.  The apple did not fall far from the tree.

    It would be easy to write chapters about Joe Wheeler during the brief time that I knew him.  When I learned that he had passed into God’s Kingdom I called Nell.  She was kind and thanked me for calling; her voice was the same as the day I said good bye to her and Joe when I left in 1985 to move to California.  Joe Wheeler was a mentor and a friend to me during the brief year that I knew him; I will always remember him fondly.  He was a big man with a big heart and a bigger laugh.  

    I really appreciated finding your article while doing a Google search this morning Vann.  I find it ironic that it was written almost a year ago by only 3 days.  It just goes to show that after all of these years, the warm memories of Joe Wheeler live on in the minds and linger in the hearts of those who had the privilege of knowing him and laughing with him.

    David Smithey

  3. Hi David, thank you for the kind words, and it’s good to hear from another who was mentored by Joe Wheeler.

    I remember well that there was a lot of excitement during the Regan run for the white house. When I arrived in Columbus in 1975, the Nixon “wage and price freeze” fix for the economy wasn’t doing much, and Jimmy Carter’s election left a lot to be desired.

    Working for Joe and seeing how increased gas prices made our paper and other printing supplies sky-rocket, which in turn meant little or no raises and less buying power, it was easy for me to see we needed to go in a different direction. One of our former pressmen had started his own print shop not long before Regan joined the race for the whitehouse, and I imagine he did pretty well with all the local campaign printing.

    Being an Army Brat, it goes without saying I felt Regan was right to rebuild our military and push spending to stay ahead of them during the Cold War.

    Again, thanks for the positive feedback and take care.

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