GVSU alum dies fighting wildfires


Grand Valley State University alumnus Richard Wheeler was one of the three firefighters who died while fighting a wildfire in Washington on Aug. 19. Wheeler, 31, is survived by his wife Celeste. He graduated from GVSU in 2013 with a degree in natural resources management.

GVSU President Thomas J. Haas suggested the creation of the Richard Wheeler First Responder scholarship to memorialize the alumnus for his service. This financial award is different from most scholarships because it is not donor-funded. Rather, it is sponsored directly by the university.

“I was made aware of his passing through my staff over the weekend,” Haas said. “It really hit me hard to think of a young person who passed away. He was a well-respected student who meet his wife at Grand Valley.”

Haas said it was a combined effort to brainstorm the best way to honor Wheeler and others like him who “put their lives on the line for others.”

“It shows the value of what Grand Valley is all about,” Haas said. “Every person matters.”

Another idea Haas and his staff thought of was to lower the flags on campus to half-staff for 30 days. Haas added that the Wheeler family was pleased to hear of these actions.

Erika Wallace, GVSU associate director of scholarships, modeled the Wheeler scholarship after the Folds of Honor and Honor the Badge scholarships, which the university currently offers for those who have lost a parent or spouse in the line of duty.

“Specifically, the scholarship will benefit dependents of first responders who have fallen while putting their lives on the line for our communities, families and friends,” Wallace said. “This award guarantees that the full cost of Michigan resident tuition is covered through a combination of federal, state, institutional and any other grants and scholarships the student is eligible to receive.”

The first award will be given for the 2015-2016 academic year, with the applications opening online on Oct. 1. Wallace added that for a student to be in the running for the scholarship, they need to complete the online application, prove their relationship to the deceased first responder and provide official papers of the service and loss of life while on duty.

“GVSU certainly has a heart and compassion for children and dependents of fallen heroes,” Wallace said. “We truly feel this is the least we can do to honor one of our alums and thank the Wheeler family for his service.”

James Dunn, GVSU biology professor, taught Wheeler in three of his classes and got to know the natural resources management student well during his freshman year.

“He was a very conscientious student who wanted to do well,” Dunn said. “He didn’t leave anything to chance.”

Wheeler came regularly to Dunn’s office hours during his first year. Dunn said he knew Wheeler was a firefighter – that was one of the things they often talked about because it was what he wanted to do.

“I worked for a forest service before I was a professor,” Dunn said. “His career interests somewhat overlapped with mine. I always encouraged him. He was a very sincere student.”

To learn more about the Richard Wheeler First Responder memorial scholarship, contact [email protected], or call the GVSU financial aid office at (616) 331-3234.