Joy Wheeler, conservationist

Gardener volunteered at Cylburn, North Point and Oregon Ridge and led nature hikes through woodlands

  • Joy Wheeler
Joy Wheeler (unknown, Baltimore Sun )
March 17, 2014|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Joy Gettel Wheeler, a volunteer who taught children about the environment at the Cylburn Arboretum, died of multiple myeloma March 13 at Gilchrist Hospice Center in Towson. She was 87 and lived in Towson.

Born Joy Gettel in Baltimore and raised on Walker Avenue, she was the daughter of Robert S. Gettel, a Pennsylvania Railroad engineer, and Jennie Saul Gettel, a homemaker. She was a 1944 Eastern High School graduate and earned a bachelor's degree from Washington College in Chestertown.

Family members said Ms. Wheeler had perfect pitch and played piano. She favored the classics and taught neighborhood students at her home.

After raising a family, she became an environmental advocate, volunteer teacher and bird-watcher. As a girl, she grew up raising vegetables with her father. She later cultivated local grasses, trumpet vine and native plants that attracted butterflies and birds.

One day, while walking along a stream near her home in the Hampton section of Towson, she saw a green heron, a bird she did not recognize.

"Because she didn't know what that bird was, she came home and looked it up in a book," said her daughter, Deborah Wheeler of Towson. "That was the beginning of her birding, but she was always interested in nature and the sciences."

Friends said she had good eyesight and was able to identify nearly 350 species, often with binoculars. She joined the Baltimore Bird Club and was its president and program chair. She volunteered at and helped organize a youth summer camp sponsored by the organization. She spoke about Maryland bird life to local groups. And while she occasionally traveled to bird-watching habitats, she did most of her birding locally, often in the Loch Raven watershed.

She became interested in the opportunity to help the newly forming Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Northern Baltimore County. In 1980, she met Robert Stanhope, who had been the first full-time naturalist hired at Oregon Ridge.

"In that spring, Joy was the first person who asked me to speak to a group, her Baltimore Bird Club," said Mr. Stanhope, who lives in Sparks. "I was impressed by her. She was warm and environmentally knowledgeable."

Ms. Wheeler went on to become president of the Oregon Ridge Nature Center Council. She also helped with fundraising for a woodpecker display at the nature center and helped cut a ceremonial ribbon at the display's opening.

She became an early Oregon Ridge volunteer trail guide and impressed visitors and students with her talks.

"In addition to being a great birder, she delighted her audience by sitting down in a quiet spot and sharing a bit of nature poetry with them," Mr. Stanhope said. "She made the walks memorable. She became a well-known conservationist."

Ms. Wheeler was also a volunteer at North Point State Park in Edgemere, and for 35 years she maintained the Northhampton Furnace Trail at Loch Raven Reservoir. She bagged trash and supervised her grandchildren in cutting invasive weeds.

"My mother's passion was passing on her love of nature and of the outdoors to children," said her daughter.

Ms. Wheeler was a volunteer at Cylburn Arboretum's nature museum and led school groups through the museum and the trails of the arboretum. She worked to keep the exhibits fresh and relevant to children and families.

"She had a knack for getting children interested," said Patsy Perlman, a friend and fellow Cylburn volunteer. "You didn't forget what she taught you. She was a rugged individualist. And to children, she was like Santa Claus. They just followed her."

About seven years ago, Ms. Wheeler initiated a nature story time for preschoolers that she presented weekly. She also helped in planning, fundraising and grant writing to move the nature museum to the carriage house on the Cylburn grounds, family members said.

She was a recipient of the Baltimore Mayor's Volunteer of the Year Award for her service at Cylburn. She was also honored as a "Hero of the Green" by the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy.

She was a lifelong Democrat, followed politics and always voted. She enjoyed reading about science, as well as the fiction of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Robert Caro's biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson.

No funeral is planned.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include her husband of 65 years, Daniel Bixler "Bix" Wheeler Sr., a retired Baltimore County schools administrator; two sons, Daniel Bixler Wheeler Jr. of Independence, W.Va., and Bennett C. Wheeler of Towson; another daughter, Barbara Tyler, also of Towson; a sister, Jean Reier of Northumberland, Pa.; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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