NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Tennessee State University had a birthday bash for one of its noted sons: Homer R. Wheaton.
Under the theme, “Everybody Loves Mr. Wheaton,” the university hosted a formal reception in a packed Jane Elliott Hall Auditorium on Dec. 9 with family, former colleagues, students and friends to honor the man many refer to as “an instrument of change.” Wheaton turns 90 on Dec. 19, which has been declared Homer Wheaton Day.
“The fact people feel this much about me to hold such a wonderful reception in my honor is just a great feeling; I am just grateful,” said Wheaton, surrounded by his wife, Vesta; son, Kevin; and daughter Rise Wheaton Pope, and their families.
“This institution has made such a tremendous contribution to the life that I ended up having. I never would assume that I would have had the life that I had to be able to meet and help a lot of people to achieve success. This is something I feel good about. I have a very strong commitment to helping people.”
Over a span of nearly 50 years, Wheaton served TSU as director of Field Services and Extension, special assistant to former TSU President Walter Davis, director of Financial Aid, and vice president of University Relations and Development.
As part of the Dec. 9 celebration, the university launched the “$90 For Ninety Scholarship Fundraiser” in support of Wheaton’s continued philanthropic endeavors at the institution.
TSU President Glenda Glover, a TSU alum, touted Wheaton’s generosity, which she said made it possible for her to stay in school when her parents could not afford her semester tuition. She referred to Wheaton as a “servant leader and legend at TSU, who is caring, trustworthy and giving.”
“Wheaton’s name rings success among students,” Glover said. “His name is synonymous with student success. So, today is indeed a special moment in the history of our institution, as we pay tribute to a man who epitomizes love for TSU. He has touched the lives of so many.”
As director of financial aid, Wheaton did not only help thousands of students secure funding to attend TSU, he personally helped students to thrive and succeed, said Grant Winrow, special assistant to President Glover and director of special projects.
Winrow said Wheaton’s “tough love” helped him stay on track as a student at TSU.
“Mr. Homer Wheaton is the definition of a legend in higher education,” said Winrow, who spearheaded the effort to honor Wheaton. “He is legendary in the sense of how many people he’s impacted.”
Gospel legend Dr. Bobby Jones, a TSU alum and former professor, was among those who paid tribute to Wheaton.
“I have known Homer Wheaton for years because we worked at the same institution,” Jones said. “I had to come to show my support today.”
While Wheaton will always be known for supporting and encouraging students to stay in school, many credit him for his sense of persuasion that led to the recruitment of legendary football coach John Merritt, and subsequently placed TSU on the world map for its winning ways.
It is reported that when Merritt would not accept President Davis’ offer of the coaching position, Davis gave Wheaton the assignment of influencing the coach to accept. With Homer’s intervention, Merritt did not only accept the offer, but along came Joe Gilliam, Sr., and Alvin Coleman, Sr., as part of Merritt’s staff. Gilliam and Coleman would become legends themselves.
“Influencing John Merritt to accept the position of head football coach at the university is one of my favorite stories,” Wheaton said in a 2006 interview for TSU Alumni Life magazine. “During the next 20 years that Merritt was our football coach, we did not have a single losing season. He won many national championships and established records with respect to the number of players drafted by the NFL.”
To contribute to the Homer R. Wheaton Scholarship Fund, visit: http://www.tnstate.edu/alumni/wheaton.aspx.