Sam Wheeler

In Memoriam
Henry H. “Sam” Wheeler Jr.

I’m really going to miss Sam. I always cherished his visits and our conversations. Over the years, we talked about science, business, life or whatever was on his mind at the time. He always left my brain full of words of wisdom.

I vividly remember his first visit to see our new MRI scanner, in 2000. He asked incredibly insightful questions about its technical specifications. Then, we walked over to the basement of Tolman Hall where we had set up a room for the computers to store and analyze the MRI data we were going to collect from the scanner. He immediately noticed that in the upper right-hand corner of the ceiling we had a bucket hanging down to catch rain when the ceiling leaked. I tried to change the subject back to the complexity of our computer server but Sam insisted on learning more about why the ceiling was leaking! He had me walk upstairs to the outside of the building to trace the source of this leak and sure enough he discovered that the way the university built the foundation relative to the pavement of the sidewalk, water was not draining properly. This led to a very extended conversation of the science of water leaks in tanks, and ducts, and buildings. Fascinating stuff. And he proposed many solutions to the problem and regularly checked with me in the future whether of not the University did anything about the leak (they didn’t). That day made me realize that Sam was clearly successful in business because he not only grasped the big picture, but he also paid attention to everything, right down to the smallest detail.

Years later, Bob Knight and I had a chance to visit him at his office at the Park Water Company in Downey California. Sam introduced us to almost everyone in the building - he clearly knew everyone’s name but it was also clear that he knew more than just their name. That day made me realize that Sam’s success in life was due in part to the way he treated people.

More than 15 years ago, the Brain Imaging Center was comprised of me, a young physicist who knew how to run the scanner, an MRI scanner that we purchased with a loan from the University, and a leaky room. Sam took a gamble and invested in us, and I will be forever grateful.

Sam single handedly provided us with the foundation that we needed to build a brain imaging center that we have named after him, that is now known across the world as a cutting-edge, state-of-the art facility. (Believe it or not the MRI scanner room also initially leaked water from the ceiling but we fixed it!) It has been a training ground for hundreds of undergraduates, graduates students and post-doctoral fellows. It has been a laboratory for numerous faculty in departments across the campus. And as we promised Sam from the first day we met him, we will continue to use the imaging center to translate basic knowledge into something that is clinically relevant. The Henry H. Wheeler Jr. Brain Imaging Center is the only facility in the country that is not affiliated with a medical school that performs research on neurological and psychiatric disorders. For example, we were one of three sites in the country (and the only one without a medical school) to participate in a large study of patients that have been followed for the past 30 years for understanding factors that lead to cardiovascular disease.

Whenever I told Sam about these accomplishments, he never wanted to take any credit for what we achieved, but without him we would not be where we are today. One thing I know for sure. Eighty plus years ago when they built Sam, someone threw away the mold. But lucky for us, he has left behind a wonderful family that we have also gotten to know over the years, and we are comforted to know that we will be able to share our accomplishments with them for many years to come.

Mark D’Esposito
November 13, 2015

Obituaries for Sam:

Center for Emerging & Neglected Diseases - In Memoriam: Henry H. “Sam” Wheeler Jr., 1927-2015

UCSB News - Philanthropist and water industry executive helped to launch ongoing urban water quality project at Bren School.

California Water Association - Remembering Henry H. “Sam” Wheeler, Jr.