Bill Wheeler, whose vision for Route 66 included organizing the first Lebanon Route 66 Festival and the Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society, died Friday, April 17, 2020, after a long illness. He was 80.

Wheeler also took the idea of a Route 66 Museum to the Lebanon-Laclede County Library board in 2002 when plans were being made to move the library into the vacant Kmart building. And, as a city councilman, he developed the idea for Boswell Park to take on a Route 66 theme with murals promoting Laclede County’s role on The Mother Road.

“He was part of that and started all of that,” Ramona Lehman, owner of the Munger Moss Motel and the first secretary-treasurer of the Route 66 Society, said Saturday after learning of Wheeler’s death.

In a 2001 interview promoting the first Lebanon Route 66 Festival, Wheeler told how he grew up along Route 66 in Pulaski County and still liked to travel the old road just to remember a time gone by.

That first festival was on Sept. 8, 2001, but plans began a year earlier.

In that interview with The Lebanon Daily Record, Wheeler told how he and some of his fellow amateur-radio operators were planning a special event station where the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would allow them to use a call sign that included Route 66 in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the historic road:

As the wheels began to turn for the radio project, the memories of the wheels of cars and trucks that once traveled the “Mother Road” began to turn as well.

That’s when Wheeler and his fellow radio operators decided that Lebanon would be an ideal location to celebrate the anniversary of Route 66 with a one-day festival to remember days gone by and to celebrate the history of the road that joined a nation.

“The FCC was seeing if it would all work in preparation for the celebration of the anniversary,” Wheeler, who is the event coordinator for the Kenneth E. Cowan Civic Center, said. “We have an active radio club here in town that I am a member of, and we got to talking about setting up a special-event station. Then somebody said, “Bill, we’ve never had a Route 66 activity of any kind and why don’t you think about it?”

Wheeler did think about it and brought the idea of a festival before his advisory committee.

“It just grew from there,” he said. “We’re still going to have our special events (for the local amateur radio club), which this all started from, plus a lot of other things. We left our roots and expanded.”

That first festival included a parade, a “Route 66 Museum,” book signings by authors of several Route 66 books, an old-time ballgame and a sock hop with jukebox music. Food included “coneys” made as they used to be at Vern’s Malt Shop and basket burgers made as they were at the Triangle, two memorable Lebanon dining spots from the Route 66 era.

“The first festival was spectacular,” Lehman recalled. “It really was.”

The 2001 Route 66 Festival Committee evolved into the Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society with the mission “to educate, preserve, promote and develop Route 66 in Laclede County.” The society was incorporated as a nonprofit on Jan. 9, 2003. Wheeler was the first president. Gary Sosniecki was the vice president, and Lehman was secretary-treasurer. Other original board members were Mike Edwards, Dan True, Rod Reid, David Troutman, David Wheeler, Gail Bryant, Kenny Capps and Kirk Pearce. 

Wheeler served on the Route 66 Society board for many years and also served on the board of the Route 66 Association of Missouri.

In 2002, when the Lebanon-Laclede County Library Board decided to retrofit Lebanon’s vacant Kmart as a new library, Wheeler and Sosniecki met with the library board to propose that it include a Route 66 Museum. The two spent a day touring small museums in southwest Missouri and, at their last stop, in Joplin, sketched out a floor plan for the proposed museum. The floor plan was very close to what the architect used when the museum opened in 2004.

In 2019, a record 14,722 visitors signed the museum’s guestbook. Visitors were from 200 Missouri cities, 49 states and 58 countries.

Wheeler talked about the founding of the museum in this video that celebrated the library’s 15th anniversary in 2019:

In 2013, as a Lebanon city councilman, Wheeler proposed the idea of a “pocket park” devoted to Route 66 within Boswell Park. The park’s features would include three Route 66 murals featuring scenes important to Laclede County’s role along the famous highway.

“We will have visitors from all over the world – not just from the state of Missouri, but literally all over the United States and the world coming to Lebanon,” he said at the time. “This is an economic impact for the city of Lebanon and Laclede County.”

The park now includes a replica Route 66 – “66 Mural Drive” – a Route 66-themed playground, the three murals, a replica of the fountain at Nelson’s Dream Village and a restored cabin from Camp Joy, one of Lebanon’s first tourist camps.

Wheeler was one of the speakers at the dedication of the third mural on May 6, 2018. The Route 66 Society donated $3,000 and raised $47,000 toward the $75,000 mural project and in 2019 restored the Camp Joy cabin.

Judy Wallmark, former longtime secretary-treasurer of the Route 66 Society and now secretary of the Route 66 Association of Missouri, remembered Saturday that Wheeler had an expanded vision for Route 66 in Missouri:

“It was his belief that each county through which Route 66 passed should have a county organization dedicated to preserving their own portion of the famous road.  This was his vision when he called a citizen’s meeting to organize the Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society, and he organized the Society to function very much like the State Association. 

“Several years later, when I joined the board of the Society, he also taught our board to expand their visions. During a board meeting, we were told another entity was exploring the opening of another Route 66 museum, and initially we thought the competition would be bad for the Society – but Bill Wheeler told us we weren’t thinking large. We should instead be supportive and welcoming to anyone who wanted to put another museum here – because the more things there were to see and do locally simply meant that visitors (tourists) would stay longer, thereby contributing to our local economy. This idea of Bill’s probably was what drove his interest in creating a Route 66-themed park.”

Wheeler taught school in the Lebanon R-3 School District for many years and later became principal of the Joel E. Barber C-5 School District. He served previously on the Lebanon City Council and currently served on the Lebanon-Laclede County Library Board.

“Bill was a catalyst for many ideas we see around Lebanon and Laclede County relating to Route 66,” Cliff Claxton, treasurer of the Route 66 Society, said. “He truly cared for the well-being of Lebanon and it’s people and will be missed by those that knew him.”

Bill Wheeler's obituary:

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