Brian Wheeler’s 33 years of building a life in Big Sky
Brian Wheeler is an idea man, a list-guy and also a person of details and action. He has no qualms about offering his opinion or being the outlying vote in the boards on which he serves. Former Big Sky County Water and Sewer district president Paul “Packy” Cronin describes him as the real McCoy – as genuine as a person can be.
Wheeler and his wife Mary made Big Sky their home in 1987, initially believing they would stay for a year or two and then head back to Michigan – where Wheeler had landed after leaving his childhood home of Marblehead, Mass.
“Reflecting upon our 33 years in Big Sky, it seems surreal to remember that first trip, driving up along Lone Mountain Trail and seeing Lone Peak for the first time,” he said of the ski vacation that changed their lives. “There have been a lot of changes here since that time. What a journey. What a ride!” They built a family here – a life – at a time when Big Sky was truly rugged and amenities were few.
“Raising a family in Big Sky during the early years required innovation for providing services that are now considered basic and expected in our community,” he said.
A bird’s eye view of the community with a historical perspective reveals that many of the good things that have happened in the last three decades have the Wheelers’ fingerprints all over them.
“A rocky field loaded with weeds and large holes in the Meadow Village became a target of my attention as our boys grew,” he said. Boyne donated the land and the community got to work – leveling the field, clearing rocks, installing the sod and the irrigation.
“We asked for help from every landscaper in town and Steve Barrett donated a tractor for us to use and keep at the park,” he said. “Mary drove the tractor around the field and the neighborhood kids threw rocks in the loader bucket in the front – that’s how we got the work done.”
Dozens of community members lined-up when semis weighed down with sod came. “[Volunteers] worked for days to get the sod down and the water on,” he said. “This created the original soccer and softball fields that were the start of the Big Sky Community Park.”
When there was no preschool? The Wheelers’ approached the then-owners of Big Sky Resort, the Kircher family, and requested rent-free use of the seasonal raft company that was at the intersection of Highways 64 and 191. It was a massive undertaking to create a non-profit preschool, but it was made possible by the sweat equity invested by area parents. That effort faded away as a for-profit preschool was founded to operate in the community – thanks to population growth. A few of their efforts transitioned – they passed the batons to others. Mary’s Secret Santa project became the Angel Tree run by Big Sky Rotary. Big Sky Community Organization took over the management of the parks and trails they helped create.
Wheeler cannot discuss the early days of Big Sky without giving a nod to the people who made this community feel like home – people like Jeane (Alm) Garrity and Patsy Donovan who helped plan and run the longstanding Big Sky County Fair. He and Mary helped with that effort for years.
Wheeler has staying power – if the volunteer effort remained, so did he. Some of his volunteer ventures have spanned over 30 years – like Eagle Mount’s “Big Sky Kids” events, something he became involved with thanks to his friend D.J. Appleman – the original owner of Scissorbills. He still serves on the Eagle Mount board of directors.
The tennis courts, the Crail Trail – the meadow pedestrian trail around the golf course – are also thanks to the Wheelers’ efforts. As Vice President of Real Estate and Development for Big Sky Resort, he prioritizes workforce housing and was one of the original developers – along with partners Jerry Scott, Al Malinowski and Trevor McSpadden– of the MeadowView Condos project.
“We recognized the need for affordable housing in this community and brokered a deal with the HRDC and the Big Sky Housing Trust to bring it to fruition,” he said. “It was the first project of its kind in Big Sky and we hope that there will be many more to follow.” Now, some young adults he watched grow-up are buying homes and able to stay in the community they love.
During the early days of Big Sky, people would attend church services at Soldiers’ Chapel during the summer and then head up the mountain to the Golden Eagle meeting room for services during the winter. Mary Wheeler, Brad Lartigue and Marilyn and Terry Mumey met to discuss the creation of a year-round church.
“This core group invited more people to the next meeting and before long we had an interdenominational board tasked to make it become a reality,” he said. “I worked with Marty Pavelich and the other founding board members of the Big Sky Chapel to secure the donations necessary to build the chapel, establish the endowment committee and coordinate with all of the denominations and community groups that use this building.”
He worked with Boyne to secure the land donation and then subdivided the property from the golf course.
“Many years of ceremonies and countless memories have since been made there. My son Dan was married at the chapel in 2015 and my grandson Abram was baptized there in 2018. Our dear son Jeremy’s funeral was held there in 2018, as well,” he said, noting that he and his wife have a special attachment to the landmark.
A walk on the trail, a visit to the chapel, watching softball or pickleball at the park – so many of the things they toiled to build provide comfort and connection for their family and the greater community.
No big achievements would be possible without others, he noted. The community, his family, his work family, the Kircher family and Boyne have supported him and made it possible for him to create a good life.
“Mary and I appreciate having had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful people here over the years – others that have shared the vision and commitment to our area,” he said.