Dennis Wheeler ran an international company with a North Idaho heart.
Wheeler, longtime president, CEO and chairman of Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp., local business visionary and generous community giver, died Monday night in Houston, where he was being treated for leukemia. He was 76.
Wheeler was one of three men who started the Jobs Plus economic development agency. He also had a big hand in launching the Festival of Trees fundraiser for Kootenai Health Foundation, multiple educational efforts along with the brief return of the hydroplane races on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
His far-reaching support went toward the Coeur d’Alene Public Library, Kroc Center, Alzheimer’s Association, the Human Rights Education Institute, Opera Coeur d’Alene and the University of Idaho, where he was a distinguished alum earning business and law degrees.
“He was a great servant leader of our community,” said Steve Wilson, president and CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce.
“You could count on Coeur d’Alene Mines to contribute to anything worthwhile,” said longtime friend and business associate Duane B. Hagadone, “and that’s because of Dennis. Whenever something important was needed, Dennis was there.”
Something was needed desperately in 1986 and 1987, when the entire region was suffering economically. Hagadone recruited Wheeler and Tom Richards, from Idaho Forest Industries, to help raise $1 million and found Jobs Plus in 1987. It remains an active public-private agency, retaining good jobs and attracting new ones to Kootenai County.
Luke Russell, vice president of external affairs for Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining, worked under Wheeler at Coeur d’Alene Mines (Coeur).
“He was an icon in our industry who invigorated Coeur d’Alene Mines,” Russell said. “He could be ferocious about the success of the company, but one on one in his office he was a man with an incredible heart and sensitivity. He cared so much for people, organizations and the communities.”
Wheeler was a Coeur director for 33 years and CEO for nearly 25 when he resigned in 2011.
Wheeler built Coeur from a small Idaho silver producer through the time of low silver prices in the 1980s and 1990s into the world’s largest company of its type.
As Coeur struggled through the earlier lean years, Wheeler’s determination grew.
“This CEO has had his times when responsibility for 1,200 people was a little unnerving,” he told The Press in a 2004 interview.
He then added: “You can’t sit still in mining. I never thought of giving up. Even if you feel a little bit insecure, you can’t show it.”
Russell recalls Wheeler, against steep odds, taking the fate of the Kensington mine north of Juneau, Alaska, to the U.S. Supreme Court and winning.
“He had a vision and passion to make it work,” Russell said. “It’s a successful property that most folks thought would never be permitted, but Dennis got it done. He taught me a lot.”
Hagadone served on Coeur’s board for years and traveled with Wheeler to New York when the company went public.
“He took that little mining company and developed it into one of the world’s premier silver mining companies,” Hagadone said. “He wasn’t just hard working and passionate. He was driven.”
Wheeler was a leading spokesman and advocate for the mining industry, a director of the National Mining Association and the World Gold Council and a former president of the Silver Institute.
Granddaughter Taryn Shea Wheeler is following Wheeler’s footsteps, pursuing a law degree at Idaho. She said she’s reminded daily about his impact at the university because a room at the law school is named after him. He was also a keynote speaker at the law school’s graduations.
“If I can even be half as successful as he was I’d be happy,” Taryn said. “His generosity still lives even though he has passed away.”
Taryn called Wheeler’s presence “electrifying.”
She recalled her grandfather’s reaction of seeing Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and talk show host, at a New York restaurant.
“He was so fearless that he sat at (Sharpton’s) table and said, ‘I have so much respect for you,’” she said. “Everything about him exuded confidence and a sense of caring.”
Jim Faucher, who owns a fundraising consulting firm in Coeur d’Alene, was a Sigma Chi fraternity brother of Wheeler’s at Idaho. The two also later crossed paths with several community efforts in Coeur d’Alene.
“He could be a hard-nosed businessperson at times, but he had a strong compassion for the community,” Faucher said.
One of Wheeler’s missions in recent years was supporting the Alzheimer’s Association and caring for his wife, Jacqueline, whom he lovingly called “Mrs. Wheeler.”
The cause became near and dear to his heart after Jacqueline was diagnosed with the disease. Wheeler donated $25,000 to the association in 2015 and challenged the community to do the same. The community surpassed that challenge.
Raised by his grandparents in a house next to the baseball field in Wallace, Wheeler split time between work and play. He played baseball, football and basketball and worked in the bakery his grandparents, Harlow and Anna Rice, owned for 53 years.
“When you talk about Dennis you have to say North Idaho, not Coeur d’Alene, because he was from the Silver Valley and he was so very proud of that whole area,” Hagadone said.
Wheeler was a sports fan who loved fly fishing and traveling with Jacqueline. He practiced law in Wallace before joining Coeur.
“He hated having any down time,” Taryn said.
Plans for Wheeler’s funeral services have not been announced. He is survived by his wife; daughters Michelle and Wendi Wheeler and Maura Schmidt; son Bradley; and granddaughters Taryn, Trista and Tori Wheeler and Sara Carley.
In the interview with The Press, Wheeler credited the people of Wallace for being the type of village that properly raised kids and business leaders.
“Professional men in the community would stop and talk to me — lawyers, bankers, mine executives,” he said. “It dawned on me later how much I’d learned from those guys I’ve been blessed to have mentors all my life.”