This is the fifth in a series of articles honoring black leaders in the history of the Wiregrass in honor of Black History Month.
“Work hard and never utter the words, ‘I can’t’.”
That is just some of the advice that Gloria Wheeler shares. “I tell young people, ‘Keep God in front of you and behind you—and just work hard.’”
The Enterprise native knows those truths first hand. She holds the distinction of being the first African American to serve as director of Fort Rucker’s Directorate of Contracting.
She retired from that position in 2003 after 32 years in federal service. “Your professionalism, commitment and dedication has shown through the years by achieving certification of Level III Acquisition Professional, earning a Masters Degree and being recognized with the 2002 TRADOC—Training and Doctrine Command—Margaret Mitchell Excellence for Professionalism in Contracting Award,” said Southern Region Army Contracting Agency Principal Assistant for Contracts Charles J. Guta at the time of Wheeler’s retirement. Wheeler also received the 1998 Secretary of the Army Excellence in Contracting Award.
The daughter of the late Cleveland and Nehata Gavin, both educators, said she learned the importance of education at an early age. Her father retired from teaching fifth grade at Pinedale Elementary School in Enterprise, her mother was a librarian at New Brockton High School and her brother, Dr. Cleveland Bernard Gavin, is in the field of education in Montgomery.
An education major at Alabama A&M, Wheeler’s career in civil service began right out of college. “At the time, Redstone Arsenal in Hunstville was recruiting black students who graduated in the upper 10 percent of their class and and my university recommended me—that’s how I got into federal civil service,” she explained.
Wheeler attained the rank of GS-9 working in supply but resigned after she married her Air Force husband, the late Paul C. Wheeler. When her military husband was deployed to the first of his two tours in Vietnam, Wheeler moved back to Enterprise.
“I decided to get back into federal service to keep myself busy,” she said. With a bachelor’s degree, a few hours short of her master’s degree and prior civil service experience under her belt, Wheeler said she was not happy when told there were no jobs available for her except for waitressing at the officers’ club. “That didn’t sit too well with me,” she recalled, shaking her head. “A waitress job is a good and honorable one but the idea was that I had already been in federal service, my resume was there and they made no effort to assist me.
“Being the committed, dedicated kind of person that I am— well, you may even say I am a little bit relentless—and after a little ranting and raving, I was able to communicate with the Director of Civilian Personnel and I did end up getting a temporary GS-3 position at Fort Rucker in the field of supply,” she said. “I worked there diligently because I believe that you should be committed, dedicated and should always give your very, very best no matter what your job is.”
When she was told that Enterprise High School had a vacancy for a history teacher, she applied. She stayed there one semester. “People still kid me about the length of my tenure there,” she said with a smile.
Wheeler returned to Fort Rucker and was accepted into an internship position in the field of contracting. “I was not so fortunate as many of my coworkers who were able to start work at Fort Rucker right out of high school,” she explained. “Being African American, I had to have a college degree to start as a GS-5 in the intern program.”
As an intern Wheeler had to agree to relocate wherever in TRADOC she was needed and was told that she was being assigned to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Her military supervisor at the time called TRADOC and specifically requested that Wheeler remain at Fort Rucker. “That was God, nothing but God,” she added with a smile. “I was able to stay at Fort Rucker—and the rest is history because I started as a GS-5 intern and ended up being the director of contracting when I retired.
Wheeler became the first female African American contracting officer in 1981 and five years later became a division chief. In 1995 she became the director of contracting for the Directorate of Contracting responsible for over $200 million worth of contracts annually. She and her staff were responsible for the award and administration of base contracts such as Grounds Maintenance, various Custodial type contracts and Food Service. Mission contracts such as Aircraft Maintenance, Flight Training and Refuel/Defuel were executed under Wheeler’s watch.
Wheeler credits her former staff for the success of the department. “You are only as good as the people that are under you. I was fortunate that I had some very good people under me.
“You have to set short range goals and also long range goals to be able to know where you are going,” she said. “You need to dress like a professional, act like a professional and be committed and dedicated to seeing your goals through.
“You need to think professionally, act professionally and ultimately success will be yours. I would always encourage my employees about that,” Wheeler said. She said that she had numerous employee’s complaints over the years saying that she was too demanding, expecting perfection. “Well, I did,” she said. “I told my employees that they are employed to give 100 percent but I promised them that I was going to give 110 percent.”
“I would strongly emphasize professionalism to my employees and encourage them to obtain as much formal education and contract training as possible,” she said. “Another important thing is to always maintain a ‘can do’ attitude. Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage are all core values.”
Wheeler’s husband, also retired from federal service, passed away in October 2019 at the age of 72.
She is the mother of Enterprise District 1 Councilwoman Sonya Wheeler Rich who is employed with the Coffee County Department of Human Resources and Rodney Wheeler, an assistant principal in the state of Georgia.
In retirement Wheeler stays active with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., and her church, Friendship Baptist Church. She also serves as president of the Semper Fidelis Club and is a member of the Enterprise Civitan Club. “But Number One is my family,” said the proud grandmother of Ty Wheeler, 9, “a gifted third grader,” and Sage Wheeler, 4, “a day care scholar.”
"I'm not one to blow my own horn," she said with a smile. “I just learned all I could and knew that I had to have a good work ethic, work hard and strive for perfection.
"I started as a temporary GS-3 and retired a GS-14 after 32 years of federal service,” she added. “God has blessed me and allowed me to live a wonderful life.”