Hometown Hero: Debbie Wheeler
The Fenton resident experienced musical heartache and enlightenment.
About this series: We at Fenton Patch believe everyone has a story to tell, and we believe that many Fenton residents have some heroism inside them, not by saving the world, but by the way they handle the little things in life. That is why, each month, we take an inside look at a Fenton resident's life and find out what makes that person tick. If you would like to nominate someone to be a Hometown Hero, contact Fenton Patch Editor Jason Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stop and listen. What do you hear? The sounds of birds singing, cars driving by or neighbors raking often go unnoticed. Fenton resident Debbie Wheeler hears these sounds around her as an orchestra.
“I have been a music teacher for 42 years, and the music that is everywhere and people’s desire to learn how to play the piano inspires me to teach," she said.
Wheeler’s repertoire consists of elementary through college music theory, classical, pop and Christian music. She has motivated hundreds of students to appreciate music and find the rhythm in their lives. Her students have achieved lead roles in plays and musicals during their high school careers.
“My son took two months of voice lessons from her and got the lead role in Annie Get Your Gun at Powers Catholic,” said Lori Sulfaro of Rose Township.
Her son has taken piano lessons from Wheeler for six years.
“We became family during the time my son took lessons, and now that he is going away to college, I will miss her," Sulfaro said. "I’m going to have to take up voice lessons just to see her.
"She’s extraordinarily gracious, kind and compassionate. She is a ray of sunshine, and you can tell her anything and know that she will keep it private," Sulfaro said.
Wheeler was born with music in her heart and began teaching at the age of 16. She always dreamed of owning a grand piano, and that dream became a reality for her.
“When I lived in Flint Township, I was able to purchase a grand piano. My children are the No. 1 love of my life, but materially, that piano was the best treasure I could have ever found," she said.
But the music in Wheeler’s life came to a halt one day when she was faced with a divorce and became a single mother of five children.
“My van broke down and was the only transportation I had. As a single mom, I didn’t have a lot of money and had to make a heartbreaking decision," she said.
Wheeler had to sell her grand piano in order to get her van fixed. She received advice from a friend who was able to sell the piano for her.
“I had six years with that piano and couldn’t be home when the men came to take it because I was so heartbroken,” Wheeler said.
Life went on, and the day came when Wheeler’s friends encouraged her to move to Fenton because they knew she would love the town. Wheeler packed her children and their belongings and moved to Fenton in 1991.
“By the grace of God, I started teaching music again," she said. "Two of my students' parents asked me if I would start having music recitals at their church, Trinity Lutheran. I decided to sit down one day and play their grand piano. I started listening to the tone of it and questioned where they got it," she said.
Wheeler was informed that the church had purchased the piano from a dealer, and she soon discovered it was her piano.
“I was astounded,” she said.
Lake Fenton resident Gregg Bugala and his family have known Wheeler for 20 years.
“We were drawn to her because she was one of the first Christians we met who really lived her faith," he said. "She is very gentle, compassionate and considerate; there isn't a bitter, angry or unforgiving bone in her body."
Wheeler also has a passion for animals. She has raised Himalayan and Persian cats for adoption for 18 years. “To me, they are one of the most beautiful and gentlest cats in the feline breeds," she said.
Wheeler doesn’t regret moving to Fenton and is enchanted with the beauty of the lakes, landscape and countryside. “It’s a slow-paced and easygoing town but yet has lots of energy,” she said.
“Music is my biggest passion, and I always say that I hope I can continue to teach until I am 110."
Now what do you hear?
Residents interested in music or voice lessons — or in adopting a feline — may contact Wheeler at 818-629-3621.