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After 62 years of marriage, couple dies two days apart

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Published:   |   Updated: May 10, 2013 at 12:17 PM
CLEARWATER -

When Diane Shewbuirt drove to La Plaza Mobile Home Park to tell her father that his wife of 62 years just had died, he wouldn't believe it.

“They got the wrong room,” 82-year-old Richard Wheeley told his daughter. “They got the wrong patient, the wrong bed.”

That was last Friday. On Sunday, another daughter, Debbi Lee, went to check on her grieving dad. She leaned on the buzzer, yelled, and pounded on the windows, but he didn't come to the door.

She knew what had happened.

Wheeley died in his sleep two days after his wife, 83-year-old Esther Wheeley, died the same way at Oak Manor Senior Living Community in Largo.

“He didn't want to live without her,” said Marsha Hewitt, another daughter.

It was love at first sight for the longtime couple. He was an orderly at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich., and she was a nursing student. He lied about his age to marry her on April 26, 1951, his daughters said.

After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Wheeley trained managers for the retail giants S.S. Kresge and Kmart, relocating his family so often that the couple's four daughters each were born in a different Michigan city.

Eventually, the couple left Michigan because of Esther Wheeley's back problems.

She broke her back as a teenager when her toboggan struck a tree head-on, then later fell down stairs and underwent multiple procedures. There were so many scars on her back it looked like a railroad track, her daughters said.

The Wheeleys fled the Midwestern cold, which intensified her chronic pain, for Florida in 1979, living most of their remaining years at the La Plaza Mobile Home Park.

Richard Wheeley got a job at Foss RV Sales and Storage in Clearwater, and earned his associate's degree at the same time. He later worked as a computer technician at Raymond James, then at an Ace Hardware store before retiring in 2009.

By the time the couple moved to Pinellas County, Esther Wheeley had retired from nursing because of her back. Her last job was as director of the Head Start program in Beecher, Mich.

She was prescribed painkillers, but the frequency and quantity of the dosages kept increasing, as did her tolerance. About two years ago, she was sleeping so much that she became dehydrated and malnourished, her daughters said. She ended up first in a hospital, then at Oak Manor.

Until then, Richard Wheeley's main job was taking care of his wife. Once she was at Oak Manor he began having his own health problems. He had a gall bladder removed, and doctors discovered a hole in his small intestine, his daughters said.

Still, the couple seemed on the rebound before they died, their daughters said.

Esther Wheeley stopped taking painkillers at Oak Manor, and her mental outlook improved, her daughters said.

Two of the daughters recently took the couple to the Thirsty Marlin restaurant to celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary, and they both seemed fine. Five days later, Esther Wheeley died. When Diane Shewbuirt drove over to give Richard Wheeley the news about his wife, there was a rainbow in the sky. She said she showed it to him, and said, “It's like mom saying goodbye.”

Richard Wheeley looked up to the sky, still in disbelief, his daughter said.

“I don't have any tears left,” she quoted her father as saying. “I've cried for two years since we've been apart and I don't have any tears left.”

The couple's cremated remains will be placed in an urn, along with their wedding bands.


sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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