The year was 1986, one month before my college graduation, when a classmate called to tell me about an amazing job opportunity she was offered but couldn’t accept. She insisted that I call this businessman who wanted to hire a student from St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud — his hometown — to help him raise a million dollars for a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate. I interviewed over the phone, and the next thing I knew I was driving to the Dain Bosworth Tower in Minneapolis to seal the deal.

Little did I know that my first job out of college would be working directly with Wheelock Whitney Jr., the man who was on the board of, raised money for and became part owner of the Minnesota Twins, North Stars and Vikings, respectively. (Whitney died last week at age 89.)

I was a young college graduate and military veteran from the “other” side of the tracks, yet Mr. Whitney always treated me respectfully and as an equal. He insisted from day one that I call him Wheelock, and he introduced me to secretaries and senators alike as “my good friend Charlie.” The political candidate didn’t make it past the summer convention and, consequently, my job ended shortly thereafter.

Yet for nearly 30 years, Wheelock would send me Christmas cards, photos and his famous handwritten personal notes, and I responded in kind.

Over the decades following my brief stint working with Wheelock, we would meet periodically at his office, home or favorite lunch spot, Peter’s Grill in Minneapolis, to catch up on each other’s lives. He always started our conversations with “How are you, Charlie, and how are your girls?” He asked about my thoughts on a variety of topics and genuinely listened to my replies, followed by his pearls of wisdom, sound advice and a broad smile.

Wheelock laughed easily and was quite entertained when I tried to impress him years later, explaining a corporate event I ran at a golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., called the Masters — maybe he’d heard of it …

Unbeknown to me, he was a long-standing member of the golf club there.

Or the time I told Wheelock that I had a nice chat and photo taken with former first lady Barbara Bush during another corporate program I operated in Washington, D.C., only to find out that Wheelock knew her back in college because she married his good friend, George Herbert Walker Bush.

It was abundantly clear that while this man entertained U.S. presidents at his home, made and managed vast wealth, and traveled the world extensively from Russia to Antarctica, he cared most of all about people, and spent his life living that out. Above everything, he loved his family — being a dad, a husband and a doting grandfather.

To this day, I still write notes — and have taught my daughters to do the same — thanks to the unintended influences of a life well-lived.

I will miss my congenitally affable friend, his infectious smile and powerful hugs — and his uplifting notes, simply signed, “Love, Whee.”

 

Charlie Auspos, of Andover, is a corporate meeting and incentive travel director.