Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

MAKING IT WORK: “I like to organize, to make things work, to be a catalyst. It goes back to asking, ‘not why, but why not?’ To be successful in one’s personal and professional life, you must have the highest integrity. Also, passion, the pursuit of excellence, the willingness to fail, and then keep moving forward.” Keith Wheelock, diplomat, history professor, author, and businessman, is above all a concerned citizen.

History and Former Diplomat Professor Keith Wheelock Asks ‘Not Why, But Why Not?’

Trying to encapsulate the mosaic of Keith Wheelock’s life in these pages is daunting. Diplomat, history professor, entrepreneur, published author, he is also a man who as a Yale undergraduate at 19 led a group of students from Naples to Egypt, traveling third class on a steamer, to meet with then Premier Gamal Abdel Nasser; who later helped facilitate the rescue of thousands of hostages held by dangerous rebels in the Congo; who met regularly with a group of inmates at the Somerset County Jail to discuss short stories under the auspices of the People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos program; who served on the Montgomery Township Committee, Planning and Zoning Boards; and who has recently initiated the inclusion of the This I Believe program at the Princeton Public Library.

A man who wears many hats!

In the midst of such an eclectic resume, however, two important threads have formed a unifying link, underlying the diverse components of Mr. Wheelock’s life. One is his father’s philosophy: “Don’t ask why; ask why not?” And Plato’s admonition: “The life unexamined is not worth living.”

Keith Wheelock, the youngest son of Ward and Margot Trevor Wheelock, was born during the Great Depression in Philadelphia, and grew up in Haverford, Pa., a Mainline suburb.

His mother, born in Scotland and reared in Egypt, met her husband while leading a group of Girl Guides on a trip to Philadelphia. Mr. Wheelock, a successful advertising executive, followed her back to Egypt, persuaded her to marry him, and they settled in Pennsylvania. Daughter Margot and sons Ian and Keith enjoyed living in a comfortable house on three acres, inhabited also by sheep, rabbits, dogs and cats, and a variety of other animals. During World War II, the family had a Victory Garden, which Keith helped to tend.

He also had an entrepreneurial bent, he recalls. “I started selling subscriptions to Collier’s and The Reader’s Digest magazines, and by 11 or 12, I had set up the Keith Wheelock Subscription Agency. It was right after the war, and one year, I made $800!”

Matinee Tickets

An avid reader, Keith had pored over biographies of world figures by the age of eight, and “during the war, we read all the newspapers. My mother was English, and we followed the war closely — even before the U.S. was in it. Later, we had a push-button map, and followed the battles.”

Movies were a treat, and as he recalls, “I remember as a kid getting Saturday matinee tickets — $1 for 11 tickets! I’d also be given a nickel, walk to the theater, and then buy Jujubes (the Gummy Bears of the time). I didn’t like them so much, but they lasted the longest. We’d always have the news, cartoons, and a Western.”

Summers were special because of the family’s boat. Keith and his brother and sister learned to sail as kids, and Keith later became a sailing instructor. “I loved being on the boat and being on the water. We kept it at Bay Head, and would sail up to Martha’s Vineyard. We lived on the boat.

“I also felt very comfortable with my grandfather, Louis Wheelock, who lived nearby,” he continues. “He was very quiet, wise, and supportive. Of course, at the time, I thought he was a very old man! But he was a lovely person, who gave his full attention to me.”

At 13, Keith left for Exeter, the private school in New Hampshire, where he especially liked history. “I took whatever history courses they had. At Exeter, I learned to think and I learned to write. I also liked photography, and took pictures for the school paper, and I played squash.”

Sadly, in 1949, Keith’s mother, who had been in poor health, died. This was the first of other blows which would affect his life.

Outstanding Professors

After graduating from Exeter in 1951, Keith headed for Yale, which provided an intellectually stimulating environment for him, and he became an Intensive History major. “This was more demanding than a regular history major,” he explains. “There were special seminars and required papers every week. There were also outstanding professors.

“Lewis Perry Curtis taught English civilization, and had a big influence on me. Another important professor was Karl Peltzer, a Dutchman from Indonesia, who taught economic geography.”

Yale was an awakening for him in other ways as well, he points out. “I decided to be in some plays in my residential college, and a group of us were talking just after Stalin had died in 1953. In keeping with my dad’s philosophy of not asking why, but why not, I said ‘Why not go to the Soviet Union?’ We could go as a student study group in the summer, and 25 of us were set to go. Of course, this was the height of the Cold War, and eventually, the Russians said no. So, we decided to go to the Middle East instead, and I led a small group to Egypt and Israel. We went third class on a steamer from Naples, and to pay for it, I had gotten free film and made a documentary on ‘Egypt Today’ (portions of which were later shown on CBS TV).

“This was a time when I learned I had leadership ability,” he continues. “It was just after sophomore year; I was the youngest, and was leading the group. We met Nasser and other prominent officials, and the next year I took a group to the Sudan, Egypt, and Israel, where we met David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel.”

Back at Yale, Keith continued to explore and discover. “I took a graduate course in the economic geography of Africa, and continued my activities with the American Students for International Understanding, a group I had co-founded. That was a great student organization.”

In another direction, he became involved in residential sports. “The last time I’d played football was in the seventh grade, and now I decided to play residential football, and also went out for the rowing team.”

Bermuda Triangle

In January of 1955, during his senior year, Keith was struck by a tragedy, so unexpected and of such magnitude as to be almost unbelievable. His father, stepmother, brother, and close family friends were sailing on the family schooner in the area of the Bermuda Triangle. They were lost at sea, and never found.

Suffering from such a terrible blow, he went to see friends and then stayed with his sister. “Finally, I thought: they’re lost, and I have a choice of getting on or not.”

He chose to get on, and as he says, “This has made me empathetic to people who can make it through adversity.”

After graduation, Keith had considered returning to the Middle East, but dealing with family issues required him to stay in Philadelphia. While there, he taught seventh grade at the Haverford School, and started on a master’s program in international history at the University of Pennsylvania.

He found he had a real affinity for teaching, but events interceded, and he embarked on a journey eventually leading him to a career in the foreign service. He married in 1956, and during the honeymoon in Egypt, he wrote an outline for a book on Egypt. “I was always interested in international issues and what makes a country tick,” he explains.

Returning to the University of Pennsylvania, he completed the master’s at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, which backed his efforts to finish the book, and he was later able to find a publisher. “Nasser’s New Egypt: A Critical Analysis” was published in 1960. He was 26. “The timing was right,” he recalls. “Later, it was banned in Egypt.”

Foreign Service

Expecting to be drafted, Mr. Wheelock did not take the State Department’s foreign service exam, but as he explains, “It turned out the quota was filled, so I didn’t join the Army. After a trip to Iraq, I interviewed for two civil service positions in Washington. One was the Office of Current Intelligence Indicators, and the representative said: ‘I cannot tell you what we do, but would you like to work here?’”

He couldn’t turn down that invitation. “It turned out to be Communications Intelligence from the National Security Agency, which sent on information to the White House and the State Department. We culled and highlighted information, and I focused on East Africa.”

Also during this time, Mr. Wheelock’s daughter, Helen, was born in 1961.

By now, he had taken the foreign service exam, and became a career diplomat. Always wanting to be in the forefront of the action, he saw that the Congo was beginning to erupt. “When they asked where I wanted to be posted, I said the Congo. All sorts of things were going on there, and I thought I’d have more responsibilities. I served there for nearly two years, including administrative work at the embassy, serving as political officer, and assistant to the ambassador. It was very exciting.”

After returning to Washington, he worked in African Intelligence and Research, and then volunteered to go back to the Congo in 1964. “The Congo really blew up then. It became THE African issue. There was a rebellion, it was still the Cold War, and the rebels had taken thousands of hostages, including from the U.S. Consulate.

“I went back and became a point man, working in the rebel provinces, trying to get information about what could be done to help the hostages. Ultimately, most were released, and I was proud I had a part in it.”

Learning Experience

After another posting in Chile for three years, at a time when he disagreed with U.S. policy, Mr. Wheelock began to think that he needed a change. “I realized that I did not want to spend the rest of my life in the diplomatic service. I am not an ‘institutional’ person.”

He adds, though, that the years spent abroad were a great learning experience. “The most important things I learned from my years in Egypt, the Congo, and Chile, as well as months in Japan, was that it was imperative to understand the culture and how other people thought and felt. In the Congo and Chile, I had the additional asset of knowing the language. Also, I found it essential to understand their humor and, whenever possible, participate in their humor.”

Now, it was on to new challenges in a completely different environment. After a brief stint of teaching at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he went to work in Mayor John Lindsay’s administration in New York City, in the office of programs, policy, and housing.

After a year and a half, however, he felt the urge to move on. “I enjoyed aspects of the work and what I was doing, but not the overall venue of politics.”

He wanted to shift gears and enter the private sector, but didn’t find a suitable position, so he applied and was accepted to be a Sloan Fellow. “At that time, they accepted 45 people in mid-career from the U.S. and around the world. Everyone but me was sent by a government or company. I had to pay for it myself.

“You spend a year in a very intense, marvelous program and end up with an M.S. (his second advanced degree). I studied management, quantitative analysis, systems analysis, etc. I really wanted to get the knowledge and credentials in order to get a better job.”

Big Deal

It paid off, and he found his way to the Dun & Bradstreet Corporation, where he created international bond ratings and was later responsible for Moody’s worldwide debt instrument ratings. “It was a big deal to establish international bond ratings for companies,” says Mr. Wheelock, adding, “you know, I’ve never really been prepared for a job I’ve done, but I always learned how to do it. I also had several tremendous bosses during this time.”

Later, he was promoted to executive vice president, served with the Dun & Bradstreet Group, and ran Dun & Bradstreet’s management consulting company for seven years.

After a divorce in 1975, Mr. Wheelock had been living in Manhattan, and then in 1978, he decided to relocate to Montgomery Township, where he later opened his own company.

“Dun & Bradstreet had been very kind, and I was able to set up Wheelock Consulting here. It was a location management consulting firm, and I was fortunate to have such clients as J.P. Morgan and the Washington Post, who had known my work.”

After being hit with a series of health issues, from which he has now fully recovered, he felt the need for some inner scrutiny. “I decided it was time to restructure my life,” he explains. “I wanted roots; I’d moved around so much. I wanted to be involved here. I got interested in serving on local boards, and there were very good people here.”

He served on a number of committees and boards, including Montgomery Township Committee, Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment. He also became deeply interested in the issue of New Jersey growth and development.

New Jersey Growth

“When I saw what was going on with growth, I was concerned and wrote a book on New Jersey Growth Management. It pointed out where we were, what didn’t work, and what did. It was nicely reviewed, but it was a difficult problem. A number of well-intentioned people were concerned, but nothing would be done because developers and some people in Trenton didn’t want anything to be done.”

Also during this time, he became involved in state planning, MSM (Mercer, Somerset, and Middlesex Counties), and generally became part of the Greater Princeton Area Planning process.

Another organization very close to his heart is the Montgomery/Rocky Hill Rotary Club. “I am a 1990 Charter Member and have been intimately involved ever since. One of my most sustained involvements occurred after Hurricane Katrina. I felt strongly that Montgomery/Rocky Hill Rotary should make a major commitment toward assisting survivors.

“I got in touch with the Mecomb, Mississippi Rotary Club and pushed our club to provide initial funds. Cheryl Stiltes, our Rotary contact with Montgomery High School Interact, arranged for six separate shipments of goods and supplies to be sent to Mecomb. My daughter Helen, who is highly skilled in providing creative arts in the classroom, and I went to Mecomb between Christmas and New Year’s. She was able to entertain dozens of relocated Katrina kids with her puppet shows and light-hearted dialogue. Her ‘untalented’ dad played with youngsters outside, cut and served pizza, and cleaned up.”

Equally important to Mr. Wheelock has been his association with the Eisenhower Fellows, a program started in 1953-54, in which highly qualified middle management people from around the world are invited to the U.S. to learn about the country, and see the top people in their field — doctors, university presidents, business leaders, etc.

“Typically, 20 to 25 people come,” he explains, “and the first group included a later President of Turkey. The program honors President Eisenhower, and Colin Powell is now Chairman. I am a trustee. and it is one of my most meaningful commitments.”

Two Events

Mr. Wheelock’s life changed in 1992, he reports, when two important events converged. “Within the same 2-week period, I met Georgia Whidden, and started teaching world and American civilization at Raritan Valley Community College. The happiest moment of my life was meeting Georgia September 17, 1992. My life has changed so much since then, and we were married in 1997.

“Teaching — I am now an adjunct professor — has become a joy. I follow Socrates’ lead in asking WHY? and in rigorously examining historical myths and traditions. My primary objective is to enable my students to think for themselves. History is a marvelous story that often is obscured by the focus on memorizing names, dates, and battles. My focus is on enabling students to appreciate and understand what happened and why.”

There are many ways to teach, and for several years, Mr. Wheelock was Chairman of the Greater Princeton Area People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos, a program started by Princeton resident Sarah Hirschman, who was last year’s recipient of the “Bud” Vivian Award for outstanding community service.

“Georgia was working at the Institute for Advanced Study,” recalls Mr. Wheelock, “and I met the distinguished economist Albert Hirschman, whom I had always admired, and his wife Sarah. She had set up People & Stories, and in 1996, I became enthralled with it. I get very enthusiastic about things!”

His involvement with the program offered new and meaningful opportunities, he notes. “In addition to raising money for it, I conducted programs of short stories at the Somerset County Jail for a wide range of prisoners. Typically, eight to 12 people would come. I saw the power of it — the power of literature to take people with very little formal education and relate the stories to their own lives.”

Relating stories to people’s own lives and experiences evokes another project that is hugely important to Mr. Wheelock, one which continues his father’s program, This I Believe, first broadcast on the radio in 1951.

Daily Snapshot

Ward Wheelock and his friend, the famous journalist and broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow, collaborated to present short statements of people’s values and beliefs — a kind of daily snapshot of the personal convictions of individuals, including corporate leaders and cab drivers, scientists and secretaries; the well-known and the unknown.

This I Believe (TIB) was created by my father in memory of my mother,” explains Mr. Wheelock. “My dad had the ability of identifying a good idea, and Ed Murrow saw its value. It exploded in popularity, with 39 million listeners weekly, and it was carried in 275 newspapers nationwide. Prominent people and regular people were invited to share their views.”

The 1952 This I Believe book, incorporating statements of 100 people, was an immediate best seller, with more than 300,000 copies sold, second only to the Bible in nonfiction, points out Mr. Wheelock, and the Voice of America translated it into many languages.

The program ended in 1955 after the disappearance of Ward Wheelock, but now it is back. “When I started teaching at Raritan Valley Community College, I included a This I Believe segment in my world civilization 1 course,” says Mr. Wheelock. “I was astonished by the results. Some of my students told me this was their single most meaningful college experience.

“Then, four years ago, I received a call from Dan Gediman, an award-wining radio producer. He had read the original This I Believe book and was determined to relaunch a 21st century TIB program. I was on the NPR/TIB National Advisory Board that participated in bringing This I Believe to National Public Radio in 2005, where it is continuing to be broadcast. In one year, the TIB website received 12 million hits, and the first new This I Believe book sold nearly 100,000 copies. This I Believe is being used in hundreds of schools and colleges across the country.”

Mr. Wheelock felt that TIB was an especially important vehicle for adults 55 and older to express their views, tempered by the experiences and exigencies of life, and he led a program at Stonebridge at Montgomery 2 years ago. “You really have to have confidence and experience to explore your own beliefs and share them with others,” he points out. “In some cases, people come more to listen, and then later they feel moved to share their own thoughts.”

Positive Response

Continuing to expand the program, last fall he was instrumental in setting up a 5-week program at the Princeton Public Library, and four more sessions are scheduled for this April.

“Keith submitted a formal proposal, and as soon as I read it, I knew this was something that the community would respond to positively,” says Janie Hermann, the library’s program coordinator. “The program exceeded my expectations in terms of the connections that each of the group members made with each other and the positive response from the participants. The enthusiasm that Keith has for This I Believe is contagious, and he led the group with a dedication that is admirable.

“He was definitely the facilitator,” continues Ms. Hermann, “but he also knew when to be a participant and share his own thoughts and opinions to keep the conversation going, and during one session in particular, he was an observer as the group tackled some tough questions being posed by a member.

“This program contributes to the library’s mission of providing life-long learning and also helps us to meet our vision of being considered ‘the community’s living room’. Programs such as This I Believe, as well as other discussion-based groups, allow the library to contribute to the social capital of Princeton by providing valuable connections and a stronger sense of community.

“Keith is the driving force behind the success of This I Believe at Princeton Public Library. His commitment, dedication, and enthusiasm are infectious and commendable. Our 4-part series in April will be held Tuesday mornings from 10 to noon. Registration is requested. Call 924-9529, extension 220.”

Mr. Wheelock is thrilled at the positive response to TIB at the library. “There was a real comfort level within the group,” he reports. “In none of the five sessions was there any confrontation. It comes down to who you are and what you value. It may not be a full story; it may just be a segment of your life.

Different Beliefs

“Also, it’s like learning to swim. It’s easier, less frightening, if you’re in a group. Exploring your own beliefs by hearing others’ views reinforces that it’s all right to have different beliefs. There’s no right or wrong.”

Mr. Wheelock is especially pleased that group members from the library sessions have formed friendships and continue to meet socially.

Above all, he feels it is a continuation of what was begun by his father to honor his mother. “It is not only a lasting memorial to my parents, but a living memorial, and it continues to grow. It touches so many people on so many levels.”

Mr. Wheelock is very happy with his life today. “There is a lot of joy in my life. The joy of my family, my children and stepchildren, my four grandchildren, whom I see as often as possible.”

Princeton is a great pleasure for him, he adds. “What the Princeton community offers is remarkable. McCarter is wonderful, with the plays and concerts. Emily Mann is a tremendous natural resource! The Princeton Adult School is outstanding, the Institute for Advanced Study is unique, and the Princeton Old Guard is magnificent. Of course, kudos to the Princeton Public Library, a marvelous institution.

“And, as a Yale man, I can readily say that the Princeton community offers far, far more than that of New Haven. Princeton graduates have a continuing involvement here that is unrivaled by any other school.”

Film History

Another source of enjoyment for him is the “young” Investors Club. “Who were young in 1946!”, he points out. “We meet once a month at the Nassau Club. We have an investment portfolio and focus on that, but we have other discussion topics, such as ‘where is the country going?’ and just interesting conversation. It’s a long-time Princeton tradition.”

In addition, Mr. Wheelock finds time to engage in his passion as a documentary film guide editor. He is founding editor of Film & History’s Guide to Documentary Films.

He remains an eager reader, currently focusing on economics and finance. “My favorite authors are David McCullough (a Yale classmate), Daniel Boorstin, and Irving Stone. Anything they have written, I read. And I believe that David McCullough has done more for creating interest in history than any other living American.”

Weekly tennis — doubles and singles — continues to be a favorite activity, and his friend of many years, Rocky Hill resident Rainer Muser points out the singularity of Mr. Wheelock’s game. “Playing tennis with Keith means fun, means laughter. He has this quirky ability to send the ball across the net in directions and spins that surprise even himself. There is hardly anyone I know who can get such hilarity out of a simple ball game. Making fun of himself and gently of the other players renders these times enjoyable, no matter what the score. As an example, he likes to define himself as an ‘underhanded’ friend, since he serves up the tennis ball in this fashion.

“But there is so much more about Keith. His encyclopedic knowledge of history, ancient and recent, allows him to comment with great insight on the world around us, how we got to the present, and what the future might look like. Caring about other people is also very important to him. Common sense, his vast base of knowledge, and the ability to deal with people make him valuable in all his roles in the community. To sum it up: Keith is one of those people you want to have around, if you need a good and reliable friend.”

In the summer, Mr. and Mrs. Wheelock look forward to heading to their house on the north shore of Long Island, where sailing and swimming are favorite pursuits, and where he also hopes to establish another This I Believe program.

Good Friend

Returning to their home (located just across the Princeton border) is always welcome, he adds. “I think that there is truly no place like home, and I feel very much at home here. There is so much to enjoy. Princeton’s diversity and quality of excellence is unique. And then, we get to live in the country with neighbors like George Gallup!”

For his part, Mr. Gallup is equally pleased to call Mr. Wheelock neighbor. “I regard Keith as a very good friend and a gracious and engaging person. I’m certainly never bored in his company. He is a person of wide knowledge, which is drawn from his experience in diplomacy, teaching, politics, and other fields. From what I’ve seen, I think he is a born teacher. He loves it. He’s an ‘encourager’, adept at getting students charged up. And, This I Believe is a great idea; getting people to put down what they believe is very important.”

In his own This I Believe essay some years ago, Mr. Wheelock noted that his own life had certainly had painful moments, but added that “I believe that every individual, however dismal her or his situation may appear, has the capacity to discover an inner balance that permits her/him both to survive and flourish in life. I have seen this capacity realized in persons who have been born and raised in the bleakest of circumstances.

“My greatest and most sustaining joy in life now comes from how I interact with others and how they interact with me.
“I believe in the fundamental goodness of human beings.
“I believe in the power of personal conviction, commitment, and, above all, love.
“I believe in the capacity of individuals to love themselves and thus, to love one another.”

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