Former Sen. Ralph "Moon" Wheeler — who served 39 years in local and state government — died last week as his hometown celebrated completion of a last public work championed by Wheeler.
A former American Falls city councilman and mayor, Wheeler spent a dozen years each in the Legislature and on the Power County Commission. In 2010, he joined the Citizens' Advisory Committee for a city water and sewer project. The tour of the finished project was Wednesday afternoon, about 12 hours after he died at home.
"He believed in his town, his county, his state and his country," reads his obituary in the Idaho State Journal. A Republican, Wheeler was 81.
Wheeler was a former president of the Association of Idaho Cities and legislative chair for the Idaho Association of Counties. Wheeler also worked to bring American Falls a senior citizens' housing complex and a marina at American Falls Reservoir, which locals call "Moon's Lagoon."
He made his living as a pharmacist, operating the family-owned Rockland Pharmacy in American Falls from 1954 to 1988. His Idaho roots date to 1910, when Wheelers homesteaded in Rockland Valley; Wheeler retained the family wheat farm until 2008.
His nickname was shared by his father, Ralph Merrill Wheeler Sr., who earned the monicker during Prohibition when he sold alcohol for medicinal purposes.
"Sometimes, it went a bit beyond that," said Wheeler's wife of 49 years, Ann, on Monday. "'Moon' was 'little Mooney' before he was ever born."Serving in the House from 1972 to 1976, Wheeler sponsored the law making voluntary kindergarten available statewide. He returned to Legislature in 1994, defeating 12-term Democrat Chick Bilyeu.
An outspoken foe of term limits, he helped repeal Idaho's term limits law in 2002, just as it was about to take effect. He often said, "We already have term limits. We call them elections."
As chairman of the Legislature's Indian Affairs Council, he pressed to strike "squaw" from 93 place names in Idaho and sought limits on tribal gaming.
Wheeler contracted polio in 1955, shortly after he took over the pharmacy from his father. Though his gait changed, Wheeler stayed on his feet for 34 years.
In 2002, he lost a GOP primary to Sen. Denton Darrington of Declo, after redistricting put the two lawmakers in the same district.
Wheeler is survived by wife, Ann; four of his six children; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
A Mass of the Resurrection will be said at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in American Falls. The Rev. Tom Faucher of Boise will celebrate.