PITTSBURGH - The speeches, the handshakes, the red-white-and-blue cake - it was all a surprise, and a lot more public acclamation than former U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Jeffrey Raymond Wheeler, a Vietnam War veteran with terminal lung cancer, was used to receiving for his service in Da Nang in the mid-1960s.
Sitting up as straight as he could in his wheelchair, Wheeler, a 68-year-old former coal miner from Wheeling, W.Va., listened quietly to words of praise from a veterans' services spokesman for the University of Pittsburgh. He shook hands with his many well-wishers, accepting their thanks and thanking them in return for attending the reception.
Wheeler's cancer has left him weakened, making the wheelchair necessary. But when it was time to face the cameras, he stood, moved to a spot in front of the Marine Corps and United States flags, and spoke from his heart.
Why, he was asked, was one of his final wishes to see his elder son, Pitt mathematics lecturer Jeffrey Paul Wheeler, teach a class?
"He's special in my life, like my other son," he said, as his wife, Ruth Ann, stood nearby. "God blessed me, blessed both of us, with two wonderful sons."
During a recent visit at the Veterans Affairs hospital on University Drive, the younger Wheeler said, his father told him he'd never seen him teach a class and wished he could. For him, the visit to his classroom was a chance to also thank his father for his service, and to show the three veterans in his classes that he appreciates them as well.
For many veterans, such thanks comes many years late, he said. When the elder Wheeler returned to the United States from Vietnam, and his plane landed in Los Angeles, the soldiers were not allowed to leave the aircraft because so many protesters were there, family members said.
"Dad, being a Vietnam veteran, didn't quite get the recognition those guys deserved," said the younger Wheeler, 46. "I thought we could shine a little light on what he'd done for us."
The class inside Pitt's Wesley W. Posvar Hall in Oakland - a lecture on mathematics in multiple dimensions for engineering and science majors - was the kind of technical discussion quickly lost on casual observers. But, except for a brief break, the elder Wheeler listened intently, one hand across his mouth as he watched his son prepare the class of approximately 75 students for final exams.