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Published: Sunday, 7/1/2012

Leslie O. Wheeler, 1925-2012: CSX retiree joined bluegrass band

BY MARK ZABORNEY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WALBRIDGE -- Leslie O. Wheeler, a longtime railroad worker and a self-taught musician who joined a bluegrass band and played at festivals around the Midwest and South, died Saturday in Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center of a suspected heart attack. He was 86.

He was in poor health and was a resident for nearly a year of Lutheran Home at Toledo but had been dealing with diabetes and its complications since the 1980s, his daughter, Debra, said.

He retired in 1988 from CSX Transportation Corp. after 42 years at Walbridge Yard. He repaired rail cars for that railroad and its predecessor, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.

Early on, he was an engineer on steam locomotives.

Mr. Wheeler grew up in Kentucky and wasn't yet 10 when he taught himself to play the guitar. He later mastered the mandolin, fiddle, and banjo.

"Les could play just about anything," said Dan Sisler, his brother-in-law. "He was a great guitarist. He had a good singing voice. He harmonized really good.

"He had a Gibson guitar, and he could really make that thing sing. Leslie was very versatile on musical instruments."

Mr. Wheeler often played with his late brother, Vernon, also a guitarist and singer. Relocated to the Toledo area after World War II, they liked to sit in when musicians got together to play gospel music or foot-stomping songs from down home.

"They were all from down South somewhere," his daughter said.

"And you know how jam sessions took place."

From those sessions, he and his brother joined L.B. Siler and the Round Mountain Boys. Mr. Wheeler played the mandolin.

"His love was the sound of the bluegrass and the harmonies," Mr. Sisler said. A feature -- and one side of a single the band released in the early 1970s -- was the song "Won't You Let Me Be Your Friend."

"I can hear him singing that," Mr. Sisler said.

Mr. Wheeler was on stage as the Round Mountain Boys played concerts and bluegrass and traditional music festivals in Ottawa and Norwalk, Ohio; in Toledo and Swanton; in Michigan, Kentucky, and South Carolina.

"They really had a nice group," Mr. Sisler said. "It was six or seven years they went around, and that really takes a lot out of you."

Mr. Wheeler's hero was bluegrass legend -- and fellow mandolinist -- Bill Monroe.

The Round Mountain Boys played at Bean Blossom, a music festival that Mr. Monroe founded in Nashville, Ind. Mr. Wheeler's family treasures a photo of the men playing together at a picnic table.

On another occasion, Mr. Monroe took Mr. Wheeler's mandolin on stage and played it.

"It meant the world to him to see Bill Monroe do that," Mr. Sisler said.

Mr. Wheeler had fans, too. He got letters and autograph requests.

"He never could believe it," his daughter said.

"He wasn't in this to be famous. He couldn't believe people would come to listen to him."

He was born Aug. 21, 1925, in Winifred, Ky., to Chloie and Cecil Wheeler. He was a senior at Flat Gap High School when he was drafted just months before graduation. He was in the Navy and served aboard the USS Howard F. Clark, a destroyer escort, in the Pacific theater.

His parents moved to Walbridge. The family took in boarders, and his father was hired by the railroad to work at Walbridge Yard. Mr. Wheeler moved to Walbridge after the war.

He played baseball and softball as a young man.

He liked to hunt -- squirrel, rabbit, pheasant -- and fished for walleye and white bass in the Portage and Sandusky rivers.

Surviving are his wife, Ina, whom he married Feb. 9, 1948; daughter, Debra Stapleton; and sister, Carolyn Sisler.

Visitation is to be Monday from 2 to 8 p.m. in the Witzler-Shank Funeral Home, Walbridge, with Masonic services at 7 p.m. Funeral services are to be Tuesday at 11 a.m. in the mortuary.

The family suggests tributes to the building fund of Athens Missionary Baptist Church, Walbridge.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.



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