Veteran banker who loved boating dies

Published May 23, 2007

Harman Edward Wheeler went into business without a college degree. He started boating with no basic knowledge of the sport.

Mr. Wheeler, who died at age 87 on Sunday (May 13, 2007), led banks in Tampa and St. Petersburg and sailed to destinations throughout the world.

"It was all OJT, " or on-the-job training, Mr. Wheeler's son Lee said last week.

In Tampa, where Mr. Wheeler organized the First Industrial Savings Bank (later the Northside Bank of Tampa), he was a member of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, and continued his affiliation even after moving across the bay in 1967.

Tampa builder Jim Walter, who held the controlling interest in the First National Bank of St. Petersburg, asked him to lead the financial institution, which Mr. Wheeler did as president and CEO from 1967 to 1974. At one time, he was the youngest bank president in Florida.

"He said banking was fun, " his widow, Mary Wheeler, said. They were married for more than 60 years after meeting on a blind date in Tallahassee when she was a young teacher.

Mr. Wheeler started work at the Capital City Bank in Tallahassee when he was in high school, she said. He did not go to college but did study in the graduate school of banking at Rutgers University over several summers.

Mr. Wheeler was privy to a number of notable events in St. Petersburg. He had a hand in the reorganization of Bayfront Medical Center, which originally was called Mound Park Hospital. He was on a sister city committee that visited Takamatsu, Japan. He oversaw the controversial city incinerator that First National Bank took ownership of in 1966 when the company that operated it fell into default.

Mr. Wheeler was present when drugstore entrepreneur Jack Eckerd gave $10-million to Florida Presbyterian College, which later was named in his honor.

"Jack Eckerd and Billy Wireman (then the college's president) signed the papers in Harman's office at First National, " Mary Wheeler said.

Mr. Wheeler became active in the Suncoasters, the civic organization that presents the annual Festival of States. He was a member and past president and became Mr. Sun in 1989, an honor that acknowledged his contributions to the community. He was to be buried in his yellow sports coat, the Suncoasters' unofficial uniform.

"Harman epitomized all that was good in civic affairs by a substantial member of the business community, " said Bill Stover, the current Mr. Sun. "His Mr. Sun honor reflected both his business leadership and his substantial civic contribution."

"He enjoyed being a part of the Suncoasters, and he enjoyed being a part of the Krewe, " Mary Wheeler said.

And he grew to love sailing. The story of his rough first attempt is a family favorite. The Wheelers had five sons.

"None of us knew how to sail, " Lee Wheeler said, remembering the day his father bought his first boat, a 14-footer. Lee Wheeler borrowed a library book about sailing and skimmed a few pages on the way home from school.

When they put in at Snell Harbor, the winds were blowing away from the house and carried them across, but Mr. Wheeler had not learned how to turn around and go back.

"He didn't know how to tack, " Mary Wheeler said.

"I swam it back, " Lee Wheeler said. "The next day, we had it conquered. We about wore that boat out."