Frank Wheeler, right, who turns 95 on Sunday, delivers the paper daily in Montezuma, Iowa, with his son, Harold.
(Photo: Kyle Munson, The Des Moines Register)
MONTEZUMA, Iowa -- The oldest "paperboy" in Iowa steers his battered Chevy pickup into his son's driveway at 4:45 a.m., clambers out and announces himself with a rhythmic tap-a-tap-tap on the bedroom window.
No need for Frank Wheeler to wake his 14-year-old granddaughter, Allison, by barreling into the house.
Son Harold and his wife, Pat, rouse themselves out of bed. Harold soon shuffles out to the garage where a stack of 46 copies of The Des Moines Register have been left on the tailgate of his own Chevy pickup.
Soon the Wheeler boys (as they're known in town) drive off in the dad's '96 Chevy, which has racked up 262,500 miles. Harold, 60, rides shotgun to hop out and tuck most of the papers between the outer and screen doors, but his dad still shuffles up to several doorsteps.
Wheeler, who turns 95 Sunday, is likely the most senior newspaper carrier in Iowa - if not the nation.
Montezuma will salute its paperboy, who was born in the days after World War I, with a birthday open house Saturday at Montezuma Memorial Hall. The party will feature one of Wheeler's favorite dance bands. (He still treks to the big bands every Sunday night in nearby Malcolm. "None of this jazz stuff," Wheeler shook his head. "The kind you can dance to.")
To be clear: Wheeler, who in 1936 started his own local construction business, which Harold has since taken over, isn't the longest-serving paper carrier. The Wheelers began this stint just seven years ago. The circulation department at The Registersays 83-year-old Gilbert Lindberg of Villisca, with 57 years of continuous delivery under his belt, holds that distinction.
"I have to have something to look forward to, getting up in the morning," Wheeler said of his daily routine.
The Wheelers deliver to everybody west of the courthouse in this county seat of 1,451, while 80-year-old retired pastor Boyd Sparks and his 90-pound golden retriever-Labrador mix, Charlie Brown, tackle the east side of town.
Pat Wheeler helps her husband and father-in-law by delivering 19 of the papers separately.
This job suits Frank Wheeler. He's a morning person who never has set an alarm clock. He was indoctrinated early as a farm kid forced to wake up at the crack of dawn to pump water for the cattle.
Yes, there have been mishaps. Wheeler has gotten stuck in the snow. Driven into a ditch. Left the light on inside his cab so that Harold had to drive over and jump-start his Chevy.
Most dramatically: Wheeler ran over himself with his own truck.
The old paperboy was late, flustered and in such a rush one morning several years ago that he absentmindedly left the pickup in reverse on Meadow Lane Drive. The driver's door knocked him down, and the pickup rolled up against his back and cracked his pelvis.
"I was out of commission for about six weeks," Wheeler said.
His doctor was impressed at how well he healed. But Wheeler sure did hate sitting still for that long, despite his love for a good game of cribbage.
"I've had to work hard all my life," he said to explain his sturdiness. "I've known nothing but work."
Before he began medication for his thyroid a few weeks ago, his sole pharmaceutical was a daily iron pill.
As he drives, Wheeler points out what seems like half the houses in town that were hammered into shape by his own hands.
"I built this new house here in 1968."
Another one over there. And that one. The garage and breezeway on that house.
But don't ask him to spell the names of any occupants.
"I'm a poor speller," he said. "My wife would do all the spelling for me."
Wheeler's schoolteacher wife of 63 years, Dorothy, died in her sleep in bed next to him in December 2009.
This paper route began as a job for Harold and Pat's kids. (Oldest daughter Audrey, 22, and 19-year-old twins Nathan and Natalie all are away at college.) But Wheeler, as is his wont, got curious about how the route could be completed more efficiently and took an interest in helping. Soon he and Dorothy took it over and shared the morning drive.
Harold had his own paper route in the 1960s, when boys on bicycles were the norm. In his adult career, he spent seven years as a vocational agriculture teacher in Williamsburg before he joined the family trade.
"The darkness is kind of a dormancy," Harold said of his view from the paper route. Even if he's bleary eyed and not as much of a morning person as his dad, he seems to appreciate watching their town come alive. A private spring awakening of sorts unfolds as they wind their way among neighbors.
And Harold gets to start the day with a bit of good news: a reassuring knock from Dad.