ATLANTA (AP) — Pete Wheeler, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, died Tuesday as the longest-serving state agency head after holding the job for more than six decades.
Wheeler had led the agency dedicated to Georgia's military veterans — currently estimated at more than 752,000 — since 1954. Even after health issues forced him into medical leave last summer, Wheeler continued to play a role in leading the department by phone. A spokesman, Jon Suggs, said Wheeler died early Tuesday at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. He was 92.
"His impact on the state has been tremendous," said Randy Goodman, commander of the American Legion in Georgia.
The Department of Veterans Service owns two nursing homes for war veterans in Augusta and Milledgeville and oversees two veterans' cemeteries in Milledgeville and Glennville. The department, which had a $40 million budget in fiscal 2014, also helps military veterans with paperwork and other requirements needed to receive federal benefits, such as health care and military pensions, as well as state assistance such as tax breaks and special license plates.
Wheeler was a veteran himself, having served in the Army as a stateside infantry instructor during World War II. He joined the department of Veterans Service as director of its education division in 1949. Five years later, he was leading the agency.
During his 61-year tenure as commissioner, Wheeler served under a dozen governors from Herman Talmadge to Nathan Deal. He also served in the Georgia National Guard until 1978, when Wheeler retired with the rank of brigadier general.
Deal said in statement Tuesday that Wheeler for decades had "worked tirelessly on behalf of Georgia veterans and their families."
"His legacy is one of which we are all proud," Deal said. "I am grateful for his service and he will be deeply missed."
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson also praised Wheeler, saying millions of veterans had benefited from the commissioner's "immeasurable contribution and courageous leadership."
Goodman of the American Legion said Wheeler would be remembered for holding events across the state to ensure veterans knew more about educational, medical and housing benefits available to them. He also recalled that Wheeler was an avid collector of Coca-Cola memorabilia, which decorated the commissioner's office.
In recent years, Wheeler had been instrumental in making discounted care available to veterans in the final days of their lives at state nursing homes.
"He was able to get that cost down so veterans could spend their last days not worrying about how they're being taken care of," Goodman said.
Wheeler refused to stop working even after his own health was failing him. During his final months at the VA Medical Center, Suggs said, Wheeler called his top administrators almost daily.
"He was adamant as of last week that he would be returning to the office as soon as his doctors allowed him," Suggs said. "This was his life. All he wanted to do was serve veterans."
AP writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this story.