The emotional wallop came Tuesday morning.
That’s when Charlie Wheeler walked into the tiny store at 1004 Westport Road for the first time and looked over a lifetime’s worth of stuff that only a former two-term Kansas City mayor and Missouri state senator would possess.
“I had a visceral reaction,” the 87-year-old said about that moment when he stepped through the door.
He tipped his head when asked if he got teary.
“A little,” Wheeler said.
State seals. “Mayor Wheeler” desk plates. Wheeler portraits. Dozens of hard hats from one ribbon-cutting or another. (“City Hall Air Conditioning,” reads one.) A 16-volume collection of Harry S Truman’s public papers. Sets upon sets of cufflinks. Plaques. Watches. An Egyptian headdress. A “Mayor Wheeler” tooled-leather belt. A bust of ole’ Abe Lincoln.
And giraffes. Photographs of giraffes. Stuffed giraffes. Wheeler’s wife, Marjorie, loved to collect them.
But on Thursday afternoon, the man the Downtown Airport is named after was anything but morose. He told stories, spun jokes and spent painstaking minutes, Sharpie in hand, autographing those hard hats for a public estate sale running 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday (and running 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday). At about 13 seconds a signature, Wheeler knew he had a lot of work cut out for him.
He was ready for it, just as he was ready to downsize. The time, Wheeler said, had come.
“It was time to clear the decks,” he said. “I didn’t want to be called a hoarder.”
In the end, he didn’t have much choice.
Wheeler just moved from his longtime family home in the Loose Park neighborhood to a new place in the 8200 block of Ward Parkway. In the flash of a few hours, Wheeler and his wife went from four bedrooms to two, from two stories to one. The couple had found themselves in financial trouble in recent years as his wife struggled with health issues.
The mayor had fallen behind on property tax and insurance payments as part of a reverse-mortgage agreement. The mortgage holder finally foreclosed, and a Texas firm bought Wheeler’s home for $399,000 on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse.
That, Wheeler acknowledged, was an embarrassment and so unnecessary. Longtime family friends and admirers pitched in, and Kansas City radio station 96.5 The Buzz helped with an on-air fundraiser. Two Men and a Truck contributed the move.
Today’s estate sale is another step toward providing the Wheelers with a financial cushion.
Kathe Kaul, who’s running the sale, said she had set no financial goal.
“Generally,” she said, “we try to exceed expectations.”
By sale time Friday, Kaul anticipates as many as 300 folks to be waiting outside for the door to open. She said she expects she’ll have to regulate the flow into the little store, just west of Half-Price Books in the Old Westport Shopping Center.
“There’s a fire code we have to watch out for,” she said.
Wheeler doesn’t plan to attend.
“Generally,” Kaul said, “that’s best.”
As he made his way around the shop Thursday, Wheeler lingered longest in front of those items that marked his greatest achievements in public office. One was an architect’s rendering of the Truman Sports Complex that opened in 1972 when Wheeler was mayor. That taxpayers agreed to pay for hundreds of millions in renovations a few years ago told Wheeler that the decision to plop the twin stadiums in eastern Jackson County was the right one.
A few years before as a member of the county commission, Wheeler said, he had attended the first Super Bowl game between the Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers.
He shook his head. “We got murdered,” he said.
Next to the stadiums was a reminder of what Wheeler said was a great opportunity that slipped away. Pointing to a black-and-white rendering of a rail car named after Wheeler — the C.W. Express — he recalled a heated competition in the early 1970s between Kansas City and Atlanta for a federal mass-transit grant that Atlanta eventually won.
“Atlanta had economic development greater than any other city since they got their streetcar,” he said. “That could’ve been Kansas City.”
A part of his life may be drifting away. But Wheeler said he’s eager to continue his work on expanding the city streetcar system and on behalf of national health care reform. He wants to work with county health officials in the region and help them navigate the increased demands for doctors’ services.
“I can still give a really good speech,” Wheeler said.
He looked around. The old mayor told the story about the day that radioman Mike Murphy stuck a live wrestling bear in the City Hall elevator and sent it up to the mayor’s office.
Then there was the day movie star Ginger Rogers came to City Hall on a cosmetics tour. Wheeler greeted her at the door to his office in a top hat and cane.
“It was fun,” he said. “She was a good sport.”
Wheeler looked around. There he is with a senator, a TV personality, a president.
“I can tell you a story,” he said, “about every picture in here.”