Paying tribute to Tom Wheeler, a founder of FLUX and beloved journalism professor
Words by Emily Loudermilk
In the spring of 1993, it would not have been uncommon to see a door key dangling out of a third floor window of Allen Hall at 3am, just above a student who was waiting patiently to grab it and make their way inside. They would climb the stairs of the journalism building where they would take over the single computer they had access to, relieving the student who had been writing, designing, or editing before them. Working around the clock to complete the first issue of FLUX Magazine, these students had one voice in their head: If this is good, then how can it be better?
This mantra was, and still is, the backbone of FLUX, and the voice was that of Tom Wheeler, who helped found Flux 25 years ago. Tom’s legacy as a treasured family member, friend, musician, journalist and teacher was remembered on the morning of February 25 at “A Celebration of Life,” a memorial filled with music that brought together the many facets of Tom.
Matthew Wheeler, one of Tom’s three sons, looked out to the collection of faces in front of him. “Just because someone dies, doesn’t mean you stop getting to know them,” he said. Friends nodded and family smiled, flooded with comforting memories. Students recalled all of the advice and “Wheelerisms” that would guide them through their careers. At the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, Tom left behind the legacy of FLUX Magazine.
In 1992, Tom approached Professor Bill Ryan asking why there was no course that taught students how a real magazine should be designed, written, edited and produced. This question sparked Tom and Ryan’s year long conversation of “could be this, could be that, would be this, would be that.” Through it all, Tom was determined to make something work. “We looked around to see what other campuses were doing,” Ryan said, “But nobody seemed to have done it, or done what we were interested in doing. We wanted a magazine that would be hard-hitting, unflinching, and real.”
Night after night Tom and Ryan would forgo sleep to work alongside students fine tuning FLUX. Midnight calls relaying new story ideas became the norm. It became clear to everyone involved that FLUX was unique. Together, they were making something special.
“We had seen a lot of the students that were on the staff kinda in a light that was just on what they did, made photographs, wrote stories, or had outrageously good editing skills. But putting them all together in a group was like mad scientists getting together. We hit a lot of speed bumps,” Ryan said. This didn’t stop Tom from continuously encouraging students to realize their potential and to not get stuck in conflict. He would tell the staff, “We expect your best, and this isn’t your best. Yet.”
Students knew Tom was demanding. However, they couldn’t help but feed off his high energy levels and relentless commitment to to achieving the end goal. Tom would push students to “show, don’t tell.” FLUX embodied this idea throughout its design and stories as it showed the physical and emotional turmoil of the AIDS epidemic, the focus of FLUX’s first issue.
FLUX let students be in charge and develop a sense of responsibility that could never be achieved a class setting. “Everyone involved was dedicated to making a special statement with FLUX,” former SOJC Dean Duncan McDonald said, “Ordinary? No. In a new league? Absolutely.”
The first issue of FLUX sent reverberations much farther than just the University of Oregon campus. At the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication that year, the first issue of FLUX received an overwhelming amount of recognition. Tom was humble in the face of success. “Instead of talking at the panels, Tom decided we should find the best BBQ in Kansas City. Two or three BBQ joints later and we found ourselves in an Elvis parade,” Ryan said, “And on the plane ride back to Eugene, we were already planning how to make the next issue even better.”