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Tribute to GRSMA Violinist David Wheeler (1955-2022)

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It is with great sadness that we had to say a final farewell to our dear colleague Dave Wheeler, who passed away in early February. A long-time presence in the first violin section, Dave's tenure in the GRS spanned an impressive six decades. 


For our spring 2021 GRSMA newsletter, Dave provided this statement for the article Valued Veterans that captured his spirit.


"In the fall of 1973 I joined the Grand Rapids Symphony. I played second violin until leaving for military service in January of 1975, becoming a military bandsman on the tuba. Most of my service was at Fort Sheridan, a tiny post north of Chicago. I got married to a bandsman named Bonnie and came back to Grand Rapids after I left the service. In 1979 I reauditioned for the GRS and also started working at Cascade Hills Country Club on the Grounds. I was well known there as the 'fiddler', 'Maestro', or 'Carl' (from the movie 'Caddyshack'). In 1988 I auditioned again for the GRS to win a full-time section violin position. That's a lot of years in there, folks!"


The February 4-5 GRS concerts were dedicated to Dave and included music that reminded us of him in many ways. The performance opened with Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, composed in 1942 for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as a commission during wartime. We were always reminded of Dave's military service whenever the GRS played the Armed Forces Salute Medley, as he stood when hearing the Army's theme. Copland's poignant music from the film score Our Town was next on the program, reminding us that Dave was very much a hometown boy. He grew up in West Michigan, and he was a member of the West Shore Symphony Orchestra in Muskegon during his high school days which was directed by his father, John L. Wheeler. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture ended the first half of the GRS concert, a piece that Dave had performed many times not only on the violin but also tuba, thanks to his career as a military bandsman. The performances ended with Dvořák's New World Symphony, and its second movement Going Home melody was an emotional sendoff to Dave from us.


At both GRS concerts, a video was shown that had been created by symphony staff which included photos sent to them by Dave's family and GRSMA members. We are thankful that the Grand Rapids Symphony has given permission for GRSMA to include their video in this article.  Please note – due to copyright permissions there is no underscoring music in the video.


Dave's frequent stand partner, GRSMA violinist Haijin Choi, decorated his chair for that weekend's GRS concerts and offered this statement.


Dave Wheeler was a loving and kind human being who always brought his best effort and attitude to the table wherever and whenever he showed up. No matter how many hours he worked at Cascade Country Club before our rehearsals and concerts, no matter how little sleep he got the night before, no matter how much pain he was going through in his life, he showed up with his best effort and put music as his top priority on the stage. He simply came to work early before most of us and warmed up on the stage. It was not because he didn’t prepare enough. That’s just who he was. 


In the last several years, he had a lot of physical challenges. That didn’t stop him from being a great team player. He calculated every single step so that he could come to work early enough to rest and get ready for work. His decisions were about how to be part of the team without taking people’s attention away from themselves. 


His discreet and thoughtful manner on the stage always touched me. Well, except when he and I swore under our breath when we messed up some notes and rests here and there during rehearsals. 


He was always ready to help others in any way he could. His cough drop was always ready to be shared during rehearsals and concerts. As humble as he was, he was never shy when he needed to compliment others or share kind words. Being kind to other people was his nature. 


His page turn. HIS PAGE TURN! I will never master that skill as well as he did. 


He thought I should start playing golf because there are some great Korean female golfers out there. Although the idea of my playing golf terrifies me, I wish I had played golf with him to prove that he was overestimating me. 


It was obvious that his love for his family was paramount. The big smile he had when he talked about his children and grandchildren. We all felt his pride. And as for his cat Maddie, we all wished that Maddie wouldn’t wake him up so early in the morning. 


In December when we played many "Nutcracker" performances in the pit, Dave plucked his violin along with the bass melody during the "Waltz of the Flowers". I will miss his plucking so much. Rest well, my dear friend. 


GRSMA extends our deepest condolences to Dave's family.

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Photo Credit: Paul Austin

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