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John Wheeler: Like Son, Like Father

Ferris alumnus John Wheeler stands before a rendering of the atrium at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University in Grand Rapids. Wheeler's company, Rockford Construction, built the atrium, donating $352,000 in building improvements.

Ask around, and you'll find plenty of people who know John Wheeler. A graduate of Ferris State University with a degree in Architectural Technology, he and partner Mike VanGessel established Rockford Construction Company, Inc., in 1987. Ten years later, the company's gross sales for the year topped $100 million, and Wheeler was named Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year. In 1998, Rockford Construction was named one of the fastest-growing companies in the country by Inc. Magazine. Wheeler has served as a curriculum advisor in the University's College of Technology and was named Ferris State University's 1997 Distinguished Alumnus.

An impressive resume - particularly for a man who earned mediocre grades in high school and whose father bumped him from his program of choice at Ferris.

'Air' Apparent?

When John Wheeler announced, at age 17, that he was going to college, his father was impressed. John's three older siblings had joined the workforce after high school, pursuing college much later in life. In a show of support for his son, Frank Wheeler, then in his mid-40s, announced that he, too, would go to school.

"We got to talking, and my dad decided to go to Ferris and get his HVACR degree," John recalls. "He encouraged me to do the same thing with the concept that when we graduated, we'd go into business together. I thought that would be great, because my dad and I were best pals."

John and Frank Wheeler applied to Ferris in 1974 and found themselves in the unlikely position of vying for the same opening in the HVACR program. The elder Wheeler, who spent his entire career working in HVACR, won out.

"There was one slot left," John says. "I got a rejection letter - but they said I could take a spot in either Architectural Technology or Construction Management. I took Architectural Technology; Dad got into a CLEP program because of his work background, and he basically earned his baccalaureate degree (in Technical Education) in the time it took me to get my associate's. We both graduated in 1976 - did the cap-and-gown thing and all that.

"I can't even remember why we picked Ferris - we talked about other colleges. I guess it was because Ferris had an HVACR program," he says. "It worked out, though - I really love what I'm doing now."

Building the Whole

Success, however, has not spoiled him. His father passed away 14 years ago, but the impact of his "support" for his son is obvious. In the years since he graduated, his family has established a history of charitable contributions, volunteerism and offering educational and career opportunities to students across the state.

"I've got my head up, and the checks are clearing," says Wheeler. "But this 'giving back' is the most enjoyable part of my day. My employees volunteer, and they all get into it, too.

"It makes for a whole person - the giver is always the receiver. I've been blessed with so much - understanding and time and knowledge - that I feel I need to give those things to others who can benefit from them. I wasn't a good student in high school, but two or three instructors at Ferris said, 'This isn't all about getting grades - let's take the time and learn this.' I'd be in the lab until 11 at night because I wanted to learn it . all because they took the time."

Field of Choice

With a long ponytail, a graying beard and a smile beneath his mustache, Wheeler may not look like Bulldog Football's biggest benefactor. This fall, however, he became just that, pledging $600,000 for the completion of his alma mater's football stadium.

The in-kind gift of $100,000 in professional services from Wheeler's company, Rockford Construction, plus a $500,000 cash donation from John and wife Chris Wheeler, will allow the University to complete the second phase of its Top Taggart Field renovation next fall: a three-story building with a multi-purpose clubroom level, media and game management level, new ticket office, remodeled and expanded restrooms, and remodeled, expanded and covered concessions area.

The project also upgrades the main entrance to the stadium and site landscaping and adds six rows of seating. Ferris recently conducted a public fundraising campaign for the project that netted $600,000 in contributions and pledges. The University matched those funds. Wheeler's gift now brings the "phase two" project budget to $1.8 million, and he hopes to rally the support of other alumni to fund new lighting for the stadium, as well.

Wheeler says his donation is an acknowledgment of a quality education he credits to Ferris.

"The college experience is something so valuable, it is hard to put a dollar amount to it," he says. "We chose to contribute to the football stadium project because my wife and I have four sons who are all actively involved in sports - soccer, in particular. We have witnessed how athletics has played a positive role in our sons' lives. If our donation can encourage future generations of student athletes, it will have been the highest return on investment I have ever made."