William Bishop Wheeler, II

Born: June 17, 1940
Died: January 16, 2018

In January Bill Wheeler died of the effects of Parkinsonism at his ranch in Sonoma County, California, in a candle-lit room, listening to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” He had a long, colorful and productive life full of art, love of nature, and politics.

He prepared for Yale at the Kent School. At Yale he was a member of the Dramat, majored in Art and roomed in Silliman with Stef Graae, a close friend from Kent with whom he rowed both at Kent and Yale, Kit Kincade and poet Ed Freeman. In the 25th reunion classbook he wrote “Although I’ve lived in the same place since 1966, somehow Yale lost me, and I lost Yale. Yes, the ’60s, what years they were – what a story, much too long to go into here – except I rode the crest of that wave and somehow survived, more-or-less, intact.” During those years and a little later, Bill suffered a Warholian 15 minutes of fame on his Wheeler Ranch, a site of much of that era’s involvement in counterculture activity. “From 1968 until the alternate habitations were razed by the county in 1973, Bill presided over the exercise in spontaneous, simple, musical off-the-grid existence. “Three county earthmovers appeared early in the morning of May 18, 1973 and before nightfall, dozens of cabins and other structures were leveled.” (Neighbors had complained about “unpermitted structures, lack of sanitary facilities, drug use and comings-and-goings by suspected criminals.”)

Over the decades he moved far beyond the Age of Aquarius days, and he tired of talking about them.

When the commune ended, he lived for about a year and a half in Bolinas in Marin County. then returned to the ranch to continue his lifelong passion for painting. In 1992 he drove cross country with three other painters. One of the painters described this trip at “eight hours a day of driving, eight hours of painting and eight hours of everything else.” The trip ended with a show by the Sonoma Four at the Century Club in New York.

Bill was a strong leader in organic practices, the women’s and environmental movements, land conservation, along with alternative medical and spiritual practices, and he was active in liberal politics in Northern California. An important victory was the prevention of urban and industrial development in Sonoma County.

Upon graduation from Yale, he married his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Sterling. He sired two daughters: Aliza and Jessica Wheeler, and two sons: Shannon and Matthew Wheeler, and in addition is survived by his sisters Patricia Gilchrist and Dora Benegas, and six grandchildren.

His older daughter Aliza said that both Kent and Yale were very important to him – he felt a close connection to both and never missed a reunion. All his life he remained an extraordinarily passionate and productive painter.

I knew Bill at Yale. I remember visiting his studio, somewhere mysteriously off-campus, where he already spent many waking hours. I saw him at the 50th and remained impressed by his positive outlook. He seemed to me at that time to be a man comfortable with who he was and what his life was.

His last interview can be seen here: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/lifestyle/7921997-181/commune-founder-bill-wheeler-reflects

John Harger Stewart