by Jim Vanderbeck, PRPA Acting President
After all the endless hours of work had finally come together for the SP&S 700 to head to Montana, the PRPA was hit with the terrible news that Don Wheeler, the President of the PRPA, had passed away at about the exact time the engine was pulling out of Vancouver for its journey east. The 700 was heading down the mainline because of Don Wheeler.
Only a few years ago the 700 was stuck in the Brooklyn roundhouse with nowhere to go and nothing in the future. Don, with the skill and experience of a union mediator, worked with Walt Eisenman to hold the PRPA together. Don started to open some doors to the future. Little things at first. There were talks with the PNWC-NHRS and their president George Hickock. Don and George had visions of what the PRPA could do with the 700. Don set goals of operations but also of community involvement promoting the historical significance of the 700 steam engine and the Brooklyn area. The PRPA, under Don's guidance, participated in fund raising for OPB, Operation Lifesaver-the safety program of the railroads, and encouraged the railroad community to use the 700 as a promotional tool. We had our milestones and our setbacks. Don guided us on. Regretfully, as the PRPA got stronger, Don was getting noticeably weaker. He never let on until the last how much pain he was in.
Early this year, Don turned the presidency over to me. Staggering a bit at first, the crew came together as never before. We dedicated this trip to Don.
At 2:00 PM Mountain time on October 14, 2002, the same time as the funeral in Vancouver, the entire crew stopped servicing the locomotive in Columbus Montana and gathered in front of the 700. I led a salute to Don Wheeler followed by a long blast of the whistle.
We knew Don was with us.