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Former Saxon, Pirate would like to bring family to Spokane

Tue., March 9, 2010

For those who remember him as a standout point guard for Wayne Gilman at Ferris High School and, later, as the trigger man of Warren Friedrich’s offense at Whitworth University, it may come as a bit of surprise that basketball is no longer a part of Mark Wheeler’s life.

But then, the 40-year-old Wheeler has been a little busy since leaving the area 15 years ago to go globe hopping in an effort to satisfy his thirst for international adventure.

“Plus, it’s tough every day to go out and be a little worse than you were the day before,” Wheeler explained during a recent telephone interview from Honduras, where he recently moved with his wife, Nancy, and their two young sons. “Especially at something you used to think you knew how to do.”

Wheeler certainly knew how to do basketball at one time, leading Ferris to a 24-1 record and fourth-place finish in the state tournament as a senior in 1987, when he averaged 13 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in being named the Greater Spokane League’s most valuable player.

And he used his basketball savvy and ability to make those around him better to put together a solid college career that included a stop at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, Ariz., where he spent two seasons before transferring to Whitworth and helping the Pirates to their first NAIA tournament appearance in 30 years as a junior in the early spring of 1991.

Wheeler, a smart, steady hand who seldom screwed things up when he had the ball in his hands, started all 31 games that season, averaging 8.8 points and 4.5 assists. The following year, he averaged 13.3 points and 6.71 assists, and was named to the all-conference first team as the Bucs earned another postseason tournament berth – this one at the NAIA Division II level following the organization’s split into two divisions.

Shortly after obtaining degrees in business and accounting at Whitworth, Wheeler volunteered to join the Peace Corps, but spent the next year and a half “bouncing around” Spokane and working various jobs while waiting for his paperwork to be approved.

Once it was, he trained in Guatemala for three months before being sent to El Salvador to help rebuild a country that had been ravaged by civil war.

“It was a combination of wanting to go someplace new, learn another language and do something to make a difference with some people who needed a little help,” Wheeler explained about his decision to join the Peace Corps.

His responsibilities in El Salvador, where he first met his future wife, involved helping war refugees returning from Honduras operate within one of the many agricultural cooperatives that had been established as part of El Salvador’s rebuilding plan.

The refugees, Wheeler said, had been given land on which to raise dairy cows and sugar cane as part of the cooperative, and he assisted in the management of their various businesses.

After spending almost two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, Wheeler decided to become part of the corporate world and returned to the United States, where earned his MBA from the University of Chicago and hired on with Cinergy Corp., a Cincinnati-based energy company that has since been swallowed up by Duke Energy.

Most of his 2 ½ years with Cinergy were spent in South Africa as an operations manager for a gas district in Johannesburg, where he became a bit disillusioned after failing to see several of his bigger projects come to fruition.

“My desire with Cinergy was to work internationally, and I had a great opportunity to do that,” he said. “But after some really big projects I was involved with didn’t work out, there wasn’t a lot to be seen, in terms of accomplishments, from all the time I had invested there.

“The Peace Corps was different in that you’re working with needy people at the grassroots level, where you can see the difference you’re making every day. I had great memories of my time as a volunteer, so I thought I would go back and try to help others have the same kind of life-changing experiences I had.”

After leaving Cinergy Corp., in 2005, Wheeler went back to work for the Peace Corps, this time as a staff member, and spent 2 ½ years in a supervisory capacity in China. From there, he was transferred to the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, where he stayed for two more years before moving his family back to Honduras last November.

As the administrative officer for the Honduras Peace Corps program, he is responsible for the supervision of 211 volunteers.

The highlight of his many years with the Peace Corps, Wheeler said, is the abundance of friendships he has made while trying to help clear up any misunderstanding citizens of foreign countries might have about the United States and its people.

“There’s a lot of that out there, today,” he said, “and I think our people are among the most misunderstood on the planet. So having a chance to be able to change some misconceptions about what the United States is all about has been very rewarding.”

But while he has treasured his time in the Peace Corps, he is longing once again to return to his homeland – and hometown, hopefully – to start the next adventure with his wife, whom he married in 1999, and their two sons, Marcos, who will turn 4 in April, and Nicolas, who was born 18 months ago.

And he is hoping the connections he made as an assist-happy point guard at Whitworth will help him eventually do just that.

“My children are getting older and will be ready to start school pretty soon,” Wheeler said. “So I’m very much excited about getting the opportunity, hopefully, to move back to Spokane in the next year or two.

“I loved it there growing up, and I still love it there. But I’ve been away for 15 years, and I’m hoping that one of those deadbeats I used to pass the ball to all the time in college will make it up to me and help me find a job there.”

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