Sunday, May 21, 2023

Jon Wheeler

I hate these posts. I am compelled and driven to write them but hate these posts. 

In January 2022, I marked the passing of Judge Dietz. I admired him and his quirky humor. I noted then the death of several others such as Douglas Myers, Jack Langdon, Bob Barrett, and Hon. Joseph Farrell. I am tired of these events and feel the weight of age each time I sit to pen one. It is a cost and burden of becoming old, seeing your friends and peers pass from this earth. 

I got an email several weeks back. It advised me that Jon Wheeler was not doing well. I have known former Clerk Wheeler for several decades, and that was bad news. It seemed like only days thereafter before I received word that he had passed. 

I suspect many will not remember Jon. He retired from the Court in 2017 and faded into his favorite pastime, supporting FSU sports. I heard of his travels (family mostly) and retirement through mutual friends but lost touch with him as the years passed. Certainly, COVID did not help in the "keeping in touch" realm either. 

I ran into him early in my career and found him somewhat larger than life. He was the Clerk of the Florida First District Court when I wrote my first appellate brief. I sent it to the Court on the final day before my deadline, by overnight delivery. But, I made a technical error. I was proud when Mr. Wheeler called me personally to compliment my prudence with the delivery method and embarrassed by his explanation of my very simple error. He helped me rectify my mistake and was patient and kind in doing so.  

Jon was sometimes sarcastic and even sardonic. He was persistently outgoing and helpful though. I recall another instance I became involved with in my early career. A senior lawyer and I disagreed on a rule interpretation. I suggested we "call the Clerk." The older lawyer mocked me and advised quite imperiously (1) that the Court Clerk would not take my call and (2) that I was being naive. Guess who took the call, listened patiently to a very new lawyer, and provided sound and patient advice? Guess what an old lawyer's face looks like when an authority figure behaves with grace, poise and patience?

I did a fair number of appeals in my practice. Hint, it happens when you lose a lot at trial. I was likely someone the various clerk staff at the Court had a few laughs about. What I lacked in talent and intellect, I sometimes partially made up for with energy and persistence. Other times, I likely just frustrated those poor clerks. 

I have two more very vivid memories of Jon. The first involves the Legislature's 1994 decision to compel the Court to have oral arguments via video conference. The Court was tied into a network of video facilities owned by the state. The oral argument notice told us where to go and when. I was comfortable in my office one morning in lovely downtown Ponte Vedra (back then, that was two grocery stores, a gas station, and a couple of restaurants). The phone rang, and it was Clerk Wheeler calling.

He said, literally, "Mr. Langham, where are you?" Keep in mind folks, back then most phones were connected to the wall with a wire. You could walk around with it but could not leave the building. Cell phones existed, but they were expensive (we paid by the minute), analog, and people rarely shared their numbers widely. Thus, he well knew where I was, and I found the question confusing. 

As I sputtered and strove to respond, he clarified "You are supposed to be in an oral argument, the judges are on the bench, where are you?" Fortunately, the case was not mine. I was listed on the paperwork, but my partner was handling the argument. Jon and I worked together and soon learned that all the lawyers were in a hallway in downtown Jacksonville. They could see the bench through a narrow window in the locked door. With some effort, the bench managed to bring the camera to see that little window and the frantic lawyers. I would not have wanted to be on the other end of Mr. Wheeler's next call to the Jacksonville building manager. 

Years later, having worked on many projects with Mr. Wheeler, I ran into him one evening in a hallway at the annual workers' compensation conference. He was adorned with his nametag, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, and wore several bright, neon "glow sticks." I remained in my usual suit and tie. We paused for a moment, and I asked him if he was having a good time. He complimented the food available in a particular suite down the hall, and said to me "You should get some, and try to lighten up a little." I guess my face did not reflect comprehension as he dryly and critically added "Lose the tie judge, office hours are over." After a short pause, he added "live a little."

I am fortunate to have known Clerk Wheeler. I enjoyed his stories of the Air Force, the Judge Advocate's office, his family, the Court generally, and the challenges of implementing e-filing there. Many may forget that the First District led the way to appellate e-filing, and he deserves some measure of credit. Many may forget that Mr. Wheeler was a person that got the job done. 

He was persistent and insistent. He was collaborative and helpful when asked. However, he did not suffer fools lightly. I learned much from him over the years and am troubled by his passing. My thoughts are with his family, and all who were touched by his professionalism, friendship, and presence. Goodbye, Jon. "May the road rise up to meet you," may the good Lord keep you. You will be sorely missed. 

The following are thoughts shared with me in recent days
  • Impish smile.
  • Passed after coping with a nagging illness.
  • Clerk for almost 30 years. After retiring from USAF as a JAG Colonel in the Pentagon.
  • Avid, almost fanatical, FSU sports fan.
  • FSU Law Grad, in the first charter class.
  • After retirement, he devoted time to his family and grandkids.
  • Supported the annual educational efforts of the OJCC with appellate tips and stats. And managed the First DCA oral arguments during the annual WC conference in Orlando.
  • Very nice, professional, and just a good person.
Word quickly spread, and the dreaded "reply all" began. My inbox was periodically populated throughout the following days with emails from legends in the world of Florida workers' compensation. Tales were related, accolades expressed, and condolences offered. The following excerpts are from some of those, reprinted here with permission.

William Rogner noted:

Jon was a big part of my development as a young appellate lawyer. He always greeted the attorneys before oral arguments and put them at ease. He demonstrated the mechanized podium and walked us through what to expect once the “all rise” was called by the marshal. He knew that we were nervous and he wanted to help us do our best. Later, he would call me and run ideas by me and he seemed to value my feedback. He was also very important in the development of the relationship between the Court and the Section. Without Jon, I doubt we would have ever developed the tradition of holding oral arguments in Orlando twice a year.

Of course, he was a military man and that part of him never went away. I once had a 2 p.m. argument and I decided to take the early morning flight from MCO that would get me to Tally at 8am. As luck would have it, the Tally airport was fogged in and my flight kept getting delayed. Fearing I might be late I called Jon and asked him what could be done. His reply was essentially, “Mr. Rogner, I suggest you find a way to get here on time or it will be a very one-sided argument.” 

Fortunately, I did catch my flight eventually and later sprinted into the old 1st DCA building (after parking remotely as was required), covered with sweat, at roughly 2:30pm. Fearing the worst, I soon discovered that Jon had moved me from argument #1 to argument #3 for the afternoon session, which gave me several minutes to calm myself before presenting my case. I recalled that story with him several times in subsequent years, explaining to him that after that day, I never arrived in Tally on the same day as my argument.

Hon. Stephen Rosen (Ret.) noted

I got to know Jon in the early 1990s and then we still remained friendly several times a year after the 1993 significant legislative changes to Chapter 440. Then when I became a JCC we would see each other at least at the annual convention in Orlando. He had a wicked sense of humor often filled with sarcasm and a contagious laugh. One time, about 2013 or 14, he said "Steve I saw they reversed you AGAIN but don't take it personally." I missed him when he retired and I will miss him even more now. Great guy, great administrator, great loss.