Arts & Culture

Professor Tom Wheeler’s rocking road to the University



Journalism professor Tom Wheeler never set out to be a professional writer, and he took his first guitar lesson when he was about 55 years old — two things that might surprise anyone who knows the noted music journalist. Wheeler’s passion for guitars, music and writing sent him on a winding career — and life — path that has culminated in teaching at the University’s School of Journalism and Communication. @@http://uoregon.edu/findpeople/person/Thomas*[email protected]@

His love affair with rock and roll began at a young age. The radio was full of music by legends like Elvis, Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers when Wheeler was growing up, and by 8 or 9 years old he was a goner.

“It sort of got into my blood, just like magic. I think that’s the best way to describe it. It’s like when you fall in love with somebody,” he said. “You just kind of float around in this fog of magic, and that’s what music was for me.”

By eighth grade Wheeler was teaching himself guitar and forming bands with his friends. He thought he would outgrow it, but it didn’t happen. Sure, he attended UCLA for undergrad and then turned to Loyola Law School Los Angeles with the thought of becoming a lawyer, but music wasn’t something Wheeler could shake.

While teaching guitar lessons to help pay for law school, Wheeler was repeatedly asked by students how to shop for and take care of a guitar. The answer to that question culminated in a hardcover encyclopedia, Wheeler’s first book, “The Guitar Book: A Handbook for Electric and Acoustic Guitarists.” A labor of love, the book took three years to write and was published by Harper & Row with a foreword by famed blues guitarist B.B. King. @@http://www.amazon.com/The-Guitar-Book-Handbook-Guitarists/dp/[email protected]@

“I always thought, ‘I’m going to get this out of my system, and then I’m going to take the bar exam and be a lawyer,’” Wheeler said. “But writing was so much fun and so fulfilling.”

The book was reviewed by Rolling Stone, and soon Wheeler was asked to freelance for the magazine.

“When they asked me to write for them, this was a huge deal. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It wasn’t even a dream come true — I hadn’t even dreamed about it!”

That job got Wheeler noticed by another music magazine. In 1977 Wheeler was approached by Guitar Player magazine to work as a full-time assistant editor in the Bay Area. The journalism job took the main stage in Wheeler’s career plans, and he moved on to serve as Guitar Player’s editor in chief from 1981 to 1991. @@http://www.guitarplayer.com/@@

“I thought — kind of the same way I did about Rolling Stone — I get to interview people I really care about, about topics that I really care about, that are a big part of my life, and that are fun,” he said about the serendipitous career move. “I get to ask them questions that I’m dying to ask them anyway, and then I get to share my take on the subject matter. I get to put my name on an article that a hundred thousand or five hundred thousand or a million people are going to read, and they’re going to pay me to do this. It sounded pretty good.”

Working at Guitar Player was satisfying, but in 1991 a large publishing corporation bought the independent magazine. Many staff members were let go, and Wheeler started thinking about leaving. As a music journalist he had been invited to guest lecture in journalism classes at San Diego State and San Francisco State universities. The University of Oregon seemed like a great place to check out, even though he had never set foot in Eugene.

“I had a friend from Eugene who raved about it. And he told me one time, ‘In Eugene, here’s what they take seriously, man: coffee, beer and chocolate,’” Wheeler said. “And it sounded nice.”

Wheeler called the University’s journalism school and told the receptionist he had 20 years of experience as a full-time magazine journalist and was inquiring as to employment opportunities.

“There was this long pause and she said, ‘Oh, you’re calling about the new position on the faculty to teach magazine,’” he said.

It turns out the new position was so new that the SOJC hadn’t even announced it yet. The announcement was planned for the very day Wheeler called, and no one was supposed to know about it yet. But the fortuitous inquiry landed Wheeler a job at the University, where he has worked since 1992.

“When I got here, I expected to go through this transition period: ‘Oh my God, I miss my friends, I’m not the editor of Guitar Player anymore, I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know how to be a college professor’ — that never happened,” he said. “I enjoyed teaching from the first minute of my first class. It’s just great. And it’s very full-time. So I never looked back, and I never had a moment’s regret.”

* * *

Since he started teaching at the University, Wheeler has spread his knowledge of music and magazines on to his students.

In 1992 he started the SOJC’s Flux Magazine with fellow journalism professor Bill Ryan. Wheeler served as the award-winning publication’s faculty adviser for three years, and he calls it one of his greatest joys. @@http://uoregon.edu/findpeople/person/Bill*[email protected]@ @@http://influx.uoregon.edu/[email protected]@

In addition to his courses on magazines and arts writing, Wheeler also teaches a photofiction class that discusses the ethics of manipulating imagery. Sparked into being by the famous 1994 Time magazine cover of OJ Simpson, the class explores how journalists can make use of technologies like Photoshop while being appropriate, as well as exploring female adolescent body-image issues and fake-food photography. Taught previously as a zero-week class before summer term, the photofiction class is now offered in fall 2012 as a full 10-week class.

Wheeler was also the driving engine behind the student-run Journalism/Rowing Oregon Workshop last year. In the J/ROW workshop, a group of journalism students created a website for the athletes training to be on the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team. @@http://www.usmensrowing.com/[email protected]@

This year Wheeler has started a similar project called the Journalism/Duck Uniform Crew. The goal of the J/DUC project is to create a website that celebrates the exciting and ever-changing Nike uniforms worn by the University’s football team. With the full support of the athletic department, the project is made up by journalism and computer science students.

“I would like for J/DUC to help the athletic department build bridges with academia on campus and with the community,” Wheeler said.

But music hasn’t left Wheeler’s life. In his free time he plays gigs with soul singer Deb Cleveland and the band The Blue Valentines. Both play multiple genres of music, including blues, swing, jazz, rock and roll, country and dance — everything from Johnny Cash to Adele. @@http://www.thebluevalentines.com/@@

“My favorite gigs are when people just go crazy, and they’re just roaring,” Wheeler said. “They just get all sweaty out on the dance floor. And they just holler and sing along, and we’re just blasting.”

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