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Wheeler restored 20 Ford Mustangs for young drivers
Ernie Wheeler
Ernie Wheeler is at home in his wood working shop on Jack Tone Road in Ripon where he continues to use his imagination to make unique gifts from side arms of the Old West to tractors made from old discarded sewing machines. - photo by GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin

Ernie Wheeler has continually gone above and beyond for his fellow man whether its making small wooden toy cars painted a bright red along with children’s rocking chairs for youngsters or restoring 20 Ford Mustangs and selling them at cost to young adults needing a car. 

That amount would represent exactly what he paid for the junked vehicle, plus the actual money he put into restoring it to driving condition, with a bright paint job to boot. 

He moved to Ripon in 2000 from Gilroy after retiring from the aircraft industry with Lockheed in Sunnyvale. He was raised in Brawley in the Imperial Valley saying he knows what hot can be in the summer.

Pumping gas as a youth he was referred to as a “peon” by a supervisor when he went to work at Lockheed in Sunnyvale where he worked for 23 years – a job he got after an exhaustive search.  A friend was employed there and put in a good word for him and he was hired in a low-level position, eventually handling “product control.”

But, first he was assigned to the loading dock and that lasted only one day before he was promoted to a more responsible position.  He remembers the dock being in disarray with the wooden shipping pallets scattered and paperwork floating around on the concrete flooring.  Without being asked, he cleaned up the dock and made it usable as supervisors noted what he was doing – something others had ignored.  

Wheeler proved his work ethic by tackling other demeaning assignments that no one else wanted to do catching the attention of supervisors. He had been there only a week when it was obvious no other employee could find a needed part that was expected to take at least 30 days to procure.

“I had only been there a week when two secretaries came up to a supervisor and said they couldn’t find the parts that were needed on a project – I asked my supervisor for the purchase order and he blew me off.  Two weeks later he came to me and asked if I could find the elusive parts. I told him to give me that purchase order and I would go see what I could do. I came back in 30 minutes with the parts in hand only because I knew the system and knew where to go to find them.  That opened his eyes and the division manager was standing there and it opened his eyes too.”

So, Ernie was given a car to drive and elevated to a position where he was directed to go and help all the engineers in the system. He would take them to the vendor who sells the specialized parts by the thousands and he told him “I needed a favor that day”  – immediately getting the parts. 

“Oh, I loved that job,” he said. 

He bought a four-acre parcel in Gilroy and commuted to Sunnyvale. He was having a house built down the street about half a mile away from where a Lockheed manager was building a house on 10 acres – “a big shot.”  He was not a carpenter at all and the two of them would work on each other’s places on the weekends.  

They became good friends working from bare ground up to the roof tops.  The neighbor was a supervisor elsewhere in his building and Wheeler was surprised to see him walk into his department and asked Ernie’s boss when he was going to get a raise.  

“He was not over us,” Wheeler said, “but shortly after that he was promoted and took over all of Lockheed Engineering division. When I needed help, I got help then. He had a big office and all the supervisors came in first thing in the morning for a meeting. I went walking down his hallway  one morning and he said, ‘Ernie, come in here.’ They were at a big long table and he motioned to me saying, ‘Ernie, come in here and sit next to me.’” 

More supervisors came into the meeting and Ernie said he felt he should leave but was told to stay.

“You stay right there Ernie, you are my right-hand man!”

And, from that day on, everybody in engineering knew Ernie’s importance to the corporation and treated him with the ultimate respect.

“I worked by butt off for them and they loaned me out to all the engineering managers,” he recalled. 

Now Ernie lives in a small homey apartment he built that is attached to his work shop on Jack Tone Road with a rented main house facing the road in front and a rear house behind that he also rents out to tenants. 

To contact Glenn Kahl, email