Prolific Livingston author with Laurel ties dies at 83

Joseph Bullington
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Richard S. Wheeler

Richard S. Wheeler

Richard S. Wheeler — prolific author, Livingston legend, friend to many — died at his home Sunday morning.

Wheeler, who was 83, had been diagnosed with leukemia in late January.

Since he took to writing books full time in 1985, Wheeler has authored more than 80 titles — westerns, novels of historical fiction, even some detective novels. Among his most loved work is his Barnaby Skye series, which follows a frontiersman character, and “The Richest Hill on Earth,” a historical novel about the Copper Kings of Butte, to name but a very few.

His output has not gone unnoticed: The Western Writers of America honored him with six Spur Awards, the 2001 Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement, and a 2015 induction into its Hall of Fame.

Local writer Scott McMillion, publisher of the Montana Quarterly, praised Wheeler’s contribution to western literature.

“Richard did a lot to help people understand the real West, as opposed to the mythic West,” said McMillion. “His stories, especially his later stories, are about people making a living and living a real life in the West.

“Richard would admit that some of his novels were spotty,” McMillion continued — but what do you expect when he wrote 80 of them, he added, laughing.

When Wheeler began writing a series of detective novels under the pseudonym Axel Brand, a friend asked him why he chose that name. Wheeler responded that he was sick of alphabetical order burying his books at the end of the shelf.

“He understood the mass market,” said McMillion. “He didn’t call himself a literary writer — he called himself a genre writer.”

Wheeler understood, he went on, that when people are looking for something to read from an airport bookshelf, “the B’s do better than the W’s.”

In a 2015 interview with The Enterprise, Wheeler explained his writing philosophy: “When you give up your day job and you look in your bank account, you’re inspired to write.”

Wheeler started his writing career as a newspaper reporter, working for the Billings Gazette in the 1960s. He later worked for a publishing company in the Midwest and even tried his hand, very briefly, as a screenwriter in Hollywood before giving up a steady paycheck and returning to Montana to write novels at the age of 50.

In 2000, he married Sue Hart, a longtime friend. His stepchildren, who enjoyed spending time with him in his last weeks, have happy memories of visiting Wheeler when they were growing up.

One of Wheeler’s step-daughters, Margaret Gilluly-Marquez, of Cedar Park, Texas, said Wheeler had always been an important figure in her and her siblings’ lives.

Another step-daughter, Kathleen Gilluly, managing editor of the Laurel Outlook newspaper, said she spent time with him toward the end, remembering good times.

“Some of my favorite memories are from summers when I was 11 and 12 on his ranch in the Bull Mountains (outside Roundup),” Gilluly said.

For many years, Wheeler led an active social life in Livingston.

For at least the last 15 years, according to his friend David Stanley, Wheeler participated in “Geezer Lunch” — a group of men who got together every Wednesday to have lunch and talk.

“He was my age, an intellectual, smart, and very, very much a gentleman,” Stanley remembers. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Richard angry. I don’t believe he was ever unkind to anybody.”

“You’d have a hard time not liking him,” Stanley continued. “I don’t think he has any former friends” — a fact evidenced by the dozens of people who turned out despite the cold and snow for an impromptu wake on Sunday at Glenn’s Food and Spirits, Wheeler’s favorite bar, which opened just for the occasion.

“The thing that to me was great was while he was sick he started seeing his friends in groups at cocktail hour,” said his close friend Joanne Gardner, who noted that Wheeler enjoyed one glass of bourbon a day til near the end. “He was so happy when he could have his group of friends.”

He also enjoyed, Gardner said, all the notes he received from old friends who couldn’t make it to visit him — a correspondence that, she said, read like “a who’s who of Montana literature.”

Among the notes was one from painter and former Livingston resident Russell Chatham.

“I’ve followed your writing for many years, four decades at least,” Chatham writes, “and nothing has ever moved me to change my opinion you are the finest author who ever lived and worked in Montana.”

Wheeler has left his estate to the American Prairie Reserve and an archive of his work to the University of Oregon in Eugene. Elk River Books in Livingston will take over management of his body of published work.

On Feb. 17, Wheeler made a simple Facebook post detailing his last wishes: “I prefer a quiet, warm Elks Club wake among friends. No visitation. I am agnostic. No service. Bury my ashes beside Sue.”

Sue Hart died in 2014.

A celebration of Wheeler’s life will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. today, Thursday, Feb. 28 at the Livingston Elks Lodge.

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