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Shawn Vestal: Betty Wheeler’s closets a treasure for Spokane charities

Betty Wheeler gave so much during her life, it’s fitting that it continues after her death.

In recent months, Wheeler’s South Hill home has been gradually emptied of possessions, with most of them going to the many charities she generously supported for years. Several closets full of clothing and shoes – dispersed to St. Margaret’s Shelter, the Transitions programs that help women and children, Our Sister’s Closet and others. Books to the House of Charity. Vases to Father Bach Haven, a transitional apartment building. Vintage clothing to the Carroll College theater department. Lotions, makeup, lipsticks and other toiletries to needy women throughout the Catholic Charities network.

On Thursday, Catholic Charities was back at Wheeler’s home with a van, loading drapes (headed for the Spokane Community Warehouse), stacks of books (headed for Father Bach Haven) and wheelchairs (headed for the House of Charity).

“It just keeps on coming,” said Ann Marie Byrd, director of development for Catholic Charities. “Here she is, six, seven months after her death, her legacy is just continuing on.”

Elizabeth Wheeler, who died March 17 at age 87, quietly became one of Spokane’s biggest philanthropists over the past couple of decades. Her giving accelerated after the death of her second husband, Coleman H. Wheeler Jr., and then, later, when her shares in his family’s Oregon lumber company were sold to Weyerhaeuser, said her son, Dr. William Murphy.

She found herself a very wealthy woman, and she shared a lot of that wealth. Her giving continued in her later years, following the pattern she had clearly established, as the effects of dementia worsened.

The precise extent of Wheeler’s philanthropy isn’t known, and she was intensely private about it. But she gave at least $10 million to various causes over the past 15 years, Murphy said, and that’s likely a conservative estimate.

When the campaign to renovate the Fox Theater stalled, she gave $1 million to help invigorate the effort; the balcony in the theater now bears her name. A devoted Catholic, she directed much of her giving toward charities that help women, children and the homeless, as well as major projects with the Spokane Diocese. She paid for the installation of elevators and a chapel at the House of Charity. She gave generously to Carroll College and Gonzaga University, and supported scholarship programs.

“Even as her son, I only know the tip of the iceberg,” said Murphy, a longtime Spokane cardiologist. “I’ll hear about this or that, or somebody will stop me and say she did this for them. Even as her son, I only know a portion of what she gave.”

Wheeler was born and raised in Portland, where she lived with her first husband, Dr. John Murphy, and their two children. Her husband died in 1969, and she later married a childhood friend, Coleman Wheeler, whose father was among those who started Willamette Industries, the Fortune 500 forest products company that was sold to Weyerhaeuser in 2002. Coleman Wheeler died in 1982, and she moved to Spokane, where her son was practicing medicine.

She became very involved in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, and made contributions to many diocesan projects and charities. Her contributions financed the cathedral’s elevator project in 1997 and the Millennium brass door project in 2000, which were both dedicated to her husbands. She formed a close friendship with Monsignor James Ribble, and he became a trusted adviser in her decisions, along with her longtime assistant Sonja Dubois.

Few Spokane individuals have given anything like the amounts she did, and she was mindful of that, Murphy said. She knew that we didn’t have many deep pockets here, and she purposefully directed her wealth toward Spokane causes.

A few months after her death, her children decided that many of her possessions could go to the same causes. Starting in August, Catholic Charities showed up with U-Hauls, carting away closet after closet of clothing and shoes. Ferragamo shoes in the original boxes. Kid gloves and “delicates.” Lotions and makeup. Coats, blouses, skirts – so many clothes that Catholic Charities set up racks of them, borrowed from Nordstrom, and had people involved in their various programs come in and “shop.”

Byrd, who oversees fundraising for Catholic Charities, said Wheeler’s level of giving is “very, very rare.” Murphy said the dispersal of his mother’s possessions is a fitting end to a long, charitable life.

“It’s really a continuation of what she had done for a lot of her life,” he said. But the donation of the possessions themselves “is a small drop in the bucket compared to what she contributed to the community over time.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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