Keeper of the Story: Joseph L. Wheeler
Story by Celeste Ryan Blyden
Joseph Leininger Wheeler, fondly known as “America’s Keeper of the Story,” has a doctorate in English, and has edited and compiled 94 books of stories that have sold more than 1.5 million copies. He is best known for the Great Stories Remembered, Heart to Heart, The Good Lord Made Them All and Christmas in My Heart series, whose 25th book was just released by Pacific Press Publishing Association and is available at Adventist Book Centers and other booksellers.
Wheeler, who holds degrees in English and history, taught for 34 years on junior high, senior high and college levels. He chaired college English and communication departments at Oakwood University in Alabama (two years), Southwestern Adventist University in Texas (14 years) and Washington Adventist University (WAU) in Takoma Park, Md. (10 years).
He credits his appreciation for stories to his mother, who especially loved Christmas themes. He says the seed for the bestselling Christmas in My Heart series was planted 27 years ago, with a strong nudge from God and one of his WAU students, during a weekend snowstorm in December 1989. At the behest of English major Naomi Snowdy, he wrote “The Snow of Christmas.”
The following Spring, during a class fieldtrip to the Review & Herald Publishing Association, then based in Hagerstown, Md., Wheeler met acquisitions editor Penny Estes Wheeler (no relation) who requested he send her a compilation of stories—from those he’d written or collected over the years. Months later he received the phone call that set him on the path to leaving teaching and becoming the beloved storyteller he is today.
“From beginning to end, it has been a God thing, not a Joe Wheeler thing,” he says. With each story, “I pray and wait until God gives me the genesis.” He remembers the time when facing a publishing deadline that “the characters were comatose, lying on their backs devoid of life, and I implored God that, if it be His will, He’d see fit to breathe life in them. About three or so in the morning, I woke my wife and said, ‘Honey, the Lord has brought all the story’s characters to life in a dream!’ She ordered me, ‘Well, get out of bed … and write, write, write.’ I did.”
With no retirement in sight, Wheeler continues to enjoy the “unexpected” ministry of writing, collecting and sharing stories. He also spends hours poring through old magazines and books to find matching illustrations (mostly old-time woodcuts) for each story shared with the thousands of readers who he says are “self-acknowledged Christmasaholics.”
Their letters confirm that his annual gift of anthology is appreciated and hard to put down: “Dr. Wheeler, I’m angry with you!” wrote one reader. “I had determined that this year I’d restrict myself to one story a day. Instead, you wicked man, I found myself finishing the book early the next morning!”
That may be the reason he keeps searching for good stories and why he’s already working and praying his way through next year’s series.