Who Was Woodie Wheaton?

By Bud Leavitt | first published in 1991 | Bangor Daily News
Edited by WWLT, September 2021

Woodie Wheaton was one of the finest men I ever knew. My friendship with him persisted for nearly 40 years. It was kind of a thing that, even though we might not see each other for a year or two, we could pick right up where we left off.

Here was a man of vast erudition, able to converse easily with the world's great physicians, the flashier sporting crowd, and if need be, mathematicians. That was his job, making the simple sport of fishing a pastime that the average person could enjoy and understand.

He did it superlatively well, and watching him in operation, I learned much about the game that has become an art form.

Grand Lake Stream, where Woodie rests, is a lovely little Maine village with a broad main road that tunnels beneath arching maples shading the homes of a quiet, unostentatious citizenry, Woodie's neighbors.

The day he was put to rest, another long-time Grand Lake Stream fixture, 84-year-old Earl Bonness, quite correctly said it for all of us: "Woodie had no peers!" meaning his lifelong guiding colleague was one of a kind.

Since his death, there have been many things said of Woodie, the gentlemen of the outdoors, the man of scholarly curiosities, the man of shy dignity, the friendly man of gentle charm, the man of letters, the man of family and church.

But when I think of Woodie, I think of campfires, Grand Laker canoes, smallmouth bass, of Spednic Lake, of wild ducks wedging across leaden skies, of whistling woodcock, of whitetail deer, all things of my dear old friend's lifestyle.

I'll remember Woodie, a stocky, powerful figure, felt hat rakishly cocked over the right eye, paddle in hand and joyously laughing when a two-pound fish outsmarted a 240-pound man holding a $100 rod.

Until his death, Woodie ranked among the grandest of old Maine Guides. He is remembered for recounting old stories on water and woods, the thrilling note that crept into his voice when talk turned to bass fishing, the rich chuckle that rolled up from the diaphragm at jokes made by others with himself made the butt.

One of his three sons, Dale, choked on the words when he spoke about the man everyone called Woodie: "He was our hero. The way we fished, cooked, paddled a canoe, swung an axe. Our perspective in life and the fun we had is the way Woodie showed us. He was the mentor to generations of guides, he was our benchmark. We measured our success and failures with respect to the way 'Woodie would have done it.' If we made a paddle, or a decision, we judged the act on the basis of Woodie's critique."

Yet, Woodie was a gentle man. I saw him, time and again, take an inexperienced guide by the hand and almost literally drill him in how to ply his chosen trade. He had infinite patience with younger men, and he spoke from a vast reservoir of experience gained from his boyhood. But he had little patience with the pompous and overbearing.

Woodie Wheaton never got beyond the 10th grade in school, yet he was an incredible bookworm. He read six to eight books per week — that's correct, six to eight per week. And Woodie was a traveler. Accompanied by his ever-devoted wife, Ruthe, the two visited every U. S. state save Hawaii, all Canadian Provinces except Newfoundland, and went sightseeing in Mexico, Greece, Germany, and England.

This was no ordinary man who left us the happy memories.

Yet, like others who have ranged widely, he was essentially a simple, warmhearted man who, until the very end, kept up his relentless hunt for new, interesting things. If the average man uses 10 percent of his cerebral equipment, I would give Woodie about 90 percent.

Woodie died in Ruthe's arms, literally. He was stricken with Ruthe at his side. So swiftly does the end come. The world was Woodie's oyster, and he surveyed it with zest. I'll wager if he happened to have seen his obituary with the words "coronary thrombosis," he would have muttered to himself that there must be a better, simpler, more understandable way of saying that.

Woodie now rests beside the stream and lake he fished as a boy, West Grand, where he obtained his first guide's license 68 years ago. What a full life he lived. In many ways, it was the equivalent of at least two lives.

So it is hard to say "so long" to this particular old teacher and friend, one of the grandest of old Maine Guides.

Interested in supporting the mission of Woodie Wheaton Land Trust? Donations are always welcomed! If you also wish to donate your time and services, please send an email to office@woodiewheaton.org or call 207-448-3250.

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