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Herbie Wheeler, a pioneering journalist and Newsday icon, dies at 96

Newsday reporter Herbie Wheeler at work.

Newsday reporter Herbie Wheeler at work. Credit: Newsday

She was a woman in the newsroom when there weren’t a lot of women in the newsroom; when there weren’t a lot of women anywhere in the U.S. workplace, shy of the secretarial pool.

This was post-World War II America, 1945, and Herbie Wheeler was a young female reporter, all of 21, knocking heads at a newspaper barely 5 years old, in a garage in Hempstead, in a world of men, many just back from war.

She was Bernadette Fisher then, Berni Fisher if you read her byline in those early days of that paper, Newsday — and she was, by near all accounts, hell on wheels. As she needed to be.

She’d go on to work 45 years for the paper before her official retirement in 1990, months after the death of her husband, fellow Newsday reporter George Wheeler. Then she’d spend another 17 years or so as pretty much a full-time freelance reporter and editor for the paper before calling it a career.

En route, Wheeler, who died Monday in Wilton, Connecticut, at age 96, covered the 1947 board meeting that opened doors for developer William Levitt to build Levittown; left a movie theater to write about the horrific Long Island Rail Road crash that killed 79 and injured 363 on Thanksgiving eve 1950; and helped Newsday to its first-ever Pulitzer Prize — the coveted award for Public Service, exposing the doings of New York labor racketeer William C. DeKoning Sr. in 1954.

Over a storied career, she wrote under the bylines Bernadette Fisher, Berni Fisher, Herbie Wheeler and Karen Tyler, a pen name for a column called “What’s Your Problem?” where she helped readers find answers to questions about their most pressing needs. She posed for the Newsday advertorial for that one, cigarette, in cigarette holder, in hand — a photo over a headline that read: And You Think You’ve Got Problems!  She later had a hit book based on a collection of those columns.

She was president of the Newswomen’s Club of New York in 1971-72, a time when the club, founded in 1922, changed its name from the original New York Newspaper Women’s Club.

“When Herbie Wheeler started her career at the end of the Second World War, the majority of women in the newsroom were relegated to roles on the sidelines,” Newswomen’s Club president Jennifer H. Cunningham said, adding: “Through stellar work and advocacy, journalists like Ms. Wheeler changed the game, and our community of New York City journalists mourns her loss.”

'One of a kind'

Former longtime Newsday editor Anthony Marro said: “She was a central part of the transformation of Newsday from a small suburban newspaper into a lively and robust operation that by the early ’70s Time magazine was listing as one of the 10 best papers in the country. She did hard news and features, and was both a solid reporter and a disciplined editor, and she also managed to write with a good sense of humor.”

Editor of the editorial and opinion pages at Newsday, Rita Ciolli, called Wheeler “one of a kind” and said she was known and respected by generations of co-workers for “her sharp wit and support for the cause of fair treatment in the newsroom.”

Scores of other former co-workers weighed in on Wheeler upon hearing of her death. Longtime Newsday restaurant critic and friend Peter Gianotti, said, “with her martini-dry humor plus great onion soup, she’d host the one party you’d never want to miss.” 

Born Dec. 27, 1923, on a farm in Braddock, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh, Wheeler grew up rough-and-tumble with a sister, Marion; a mother whose traveling salesman husband abandoned her; and nine aunts and uncles who were anything but cultured, said her son, Geoff Wheeler, 64, of Yorktown.

Wheeler said one of those uncles gave his mother her nickname, based on a character from an old comic strip. Wheeler said his mom was a tomboy at heart, one who could curse and mix it up with the best of them — and still be presentable enough to follow the ballet and Broadway.

Herbie Wheeler moved with her mother and sister to Manhattan around 1935, attended Cathedral High School, where she ran afoul of the nuns, did a stint at Grace Academy, then went to work first testing Norden bomb sights for the war effort before becoming a copy boy at the Daily News while also working as a switchboard operator in the Empire State Building.

She happened to be at lunch when a B-25 bomber crashed into the upper floors of the building on July 28, 1945, leaving a co-worker among the 11 dead, her son said.

A start at Newsday

From there, she found work at the fledgling Newsday on the recommendation of a former Daily News sportswriter, Arthur Kennedy, who’d joined the staff. Newsday was founded by a woman, Alicia Patterson, who started the paper in September 1940.

Geoff Wheeler said his mother was “tolerated” by Patterson but was embraced by no-nonsense editor Alan Hathway, who didn’t mind her sometimes-abrasive, gutter-mouth style.

“If she were pressed to it, all those social graces would go out the window and she would curse like a sailor,” Geoff Wheeler recalled.

Wheeler met husband George Wheeler, a fellow reporter, in the newsroom, married him in February 1952, had one son and lived for many years in Sea Cliff — until George Wheeler, who was from Elmhurst, Queens, died unexpectedly in 1989. Geoff Wheeler said his mother had set her sights on George, confiding in a co-worker “There’s my future husband,” then grabbing his attention at a bar where Newsday staffers hung out, “crying in her beer and quietly humming an aria” — having learned George loved opera.

“Herbie had a comeback for everything,” Wheeler said, noting his mother even signed the cards she sent him at camp with the moniker Dragon Lady, penned over a skull and crossbones. 

“She had a dry, sardonic sense of humor that could be quite biting,” former Newsday editorial page columnist Lawrence Levy said of Wheeler, adding: “It was a withering weapon of criticism she employed when [she] didn’t like something you did or wrote.” But Levy also recalled how, as a probationary reporter, he was chewed out by an editor, slinking back to his desk, only to have Wheeler come by and put an arm around his shoulder. “‘Did you think that was unfair?’” she asked. “I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘So prove it to him [with] your next 10 stories.’”

“I like to tell people my mother spent some 62 years at Newsday — and it wasn’t her first job,” Geoff Wheeler said, adding: “I’ll probably spend the rest of my life discovering what it is, her legacy. If anything points me to her lasting impact on the planet, I’d like to think it was that kind of nurturing, along with her back-of-the-hand discipline.” 

Wheeler leaves behind her son, a grandson, William, and a host of nieces and nephews. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, her son plans a remembrance gathering this fall at the Planting Fields Arboretum Bea Jones Tribute Garden, named for a fellow former Newsday female journalism pioneer.

With Laura Mann

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