LINCOLN — Harold and Connie Wheeler were six blocks and 90 minutes from a celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary when tragedy struck.
They died in a head-on collision with another vehicle in Lincoln.
Harold, 76, who was driving, is believed to have suffered a heart attack or other medical emergency moments before the Saturday crash, said daughter Betty Wheeler of Lincoln. He had open-heart surgery in October.
Wheeler and his wife, Connie, 71, died at the scene. They lived near Tamora, about 30 miles west of Lincoln in Seward County.
Their son, Brett Wheeler, happened upon the accident on his way home to prepare for the family celebration.
“Their anniversary was last month, and we waited until this weekend to celebrate, but they didn't make it,'' Betty Wheeler said.
The Wheelers were driving near the home of their son, where they were to be the honored guests at a 3 p.m. open house celebration. They had just eaten lunch in Lincoln with Harold Wheeler's brother and sister-in-law and an aunt and cousin, who all traveled from South Dakota for the party.
“We just left lunch and said, 'See you in a little bit at the party,''' said Don Wheeler, Harold's brother. “They were going to a friend's house to change and get ready for the anniversary party.”
The accident occurred shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Superior Street between North 14th Street and Bel-Ridge Drive in northwest Lincoln.
Harold was driving east on Superior in a 1989 Toyota Camry when the car crossed the center line and collided head-on with a 2006 Dodge pickup truck driven by Chester Lim, 68, of Lincoln, said Officer Katie Flood, a police spokeswoman.
The collision pushed Lim's vehicle into a parked City of Lincoln utility truck, where Gregory Stohs was testing crosswalk signals from a bucket on the end of an extended boom. Stohs witnessed the initial crash and ducked into the bucket to ride out the secondary collision, Flood said. He was not injured.
Lim, who was alone in the pickup, suffered minor injuries and was treated at a hospital and released.
The speed limit at the accident site is 40 mph, Flood said.
“We may never know specifically if a medical episode caused the accident, but that's the assumption,'' Flood said.
Betty Wheeler said a doctor and nurse at the accident site were confident that her father suffered a catastrophic medical event. No autopsy was performed, she said.
The Wheelers grew up on ranches and never ventured far from their rural roots, living on acreages near Ashland and Tamora after moving from Valentine, Neb., about four decades ago.
“They always had horses,'' said Bonnie McGuire of Lincoln, a sister of Connie Wheeler.
Connie was a champion rodeo barrel racer as a teenager. She gave up the sport at age 16 after breaking her neck at a branding. She was roping a calf from horseback when another calf darted in front of her horse. The horse stumbled and rolled over Connie twice, Bonnie McGuire said.
Harold and Connie were born in Valentine. Harold's parents ranched north of Valentine near Mission, S.D., on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Connie's parents ranched near Thedford, Neb.
Harold attended a one-room country school, graduated from Bennett County High School in Martin, S.D., and enlisted in the Navy. After his discharge, he graduated from General Beadle State College (now Dakota State University) in Madison, S.D., and started a teaching career White River, S.D.
Connie graduated from Gordon (Neb.) High School and was in Valentine working as an assistant in an uncle's dentist office when she met Harold. They married Nov. 21, 1962.
Harold taught school in Valentine and Ainsworth until going to work for what is now the Nebraska Health and Human Services Department in Omaha in the early 1970s. He eventually transferred to the Lincoln headquarters, where he was a unit manager for 18 years before retiring about a decade ago.
Harold was part of AARP’s Lincoln advocacy team and contributed to the development of the organization’s public policy positions in Nebraska, said Mark Intermill, the group’s advocacy director. He was a registered lobbyist and spoke on behalf of AARP in legislative committee hearings and served as president of the AARP chapter in Seward for several years.
"Harold was a gifted public speaker and made presentations to community groups on a variety of AARP issues,’’ Intermill said.
Harold was an AARP officer and active in two Toastmasters International clubs in Lincoln, Capital Voices and Strictly Speaking.
“He was a natural leader,'' said his brother.
“And he got a kick out of Toastmasters,'' his daughter said. “He liked to talk off the cuff of his sleeve. He was a storyteller.''
The couple moved to Tamora about 10 years ago, where they kept two horses and multiple pets.
Other survivors include Connie's brother, Don McGuire of Lincoln.
A service for the Wheelers is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday at Roper & Sons Chapel, 4300 O St.
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