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Harvey Wheeler, 85; Political Scientist, 'Fail-Safe' Author

September 17, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Harvey Wheeler, a writer and thinker whose work reflected an abiding concern for the future of the human race -- an intellectual focus that found popular expression in "Fail-Safe," the bestselling 1962 novel he coauthored about an accidental nuclear attack on Russia -- died Sept. 6 at his Carpinteria home after a long battle with cancer. He was 85.

"Fail-Safe," written with Eugene Burdick, was based on a short story Wheeler wrote in the 1950s. It inspired the 1964 movie directed by Sidney Lumet starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau and a live teleplay on CBS in 2000 with George Clooney.

A political scientist by training and longtime fellow at Santa Barbara's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Wheeler primarily wrote nonfiction. He wrote, edited or contributed to a dozen books, including "Democracy in a Revolutionary Era" (1968) and "The Virtual Library" (1987).

He also wrote more than 200 scholarly articles and was an editor of the Journal of Social and Biological Structures.

Born in Waco, Texas, Wheeler earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree at Indiana University in 1946 and 1947 and received a doctorate from Harvard University in 1950. He taught political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., before joining the Santa Barbara center in 1960 as a visiting scholar. He remained there until 1975, serving in a variety of roles, including program director.

Known as a forward thinker who trained his sights on the next big issue long before it became a mainstream concern, he sponsored discussions of the healthcare system in the 1970s, for example, and of aging in the 1980s.

"Imagine what it would mean," he told a Santa Barbara symposium in 1982, "if people begin to think in terms of extended life instead of eventual death. Think of what this would mean to philosophy, politics, even interest rates. The advent of the biological revolution is going to be much more disturbing and unsettling than anything the world has known, even atomic energy."

He was profoundly influenced by World War II and the atomic bomb, which gave him "a presentiment of impending catastrophe" and the impetus to study political science. But his academic interests were wide-ranging, spanning fields as diverse as constitutionalism and semiotics, the analysis of signs in language.

"His interests and curiosity about all generations was remarkable," Linda Kauffman, a friend and colleague of 30 years, said Thursday.

As Wheeler neared 80, for instance, he helped teach an online course about Shakespeare at Carpinteria High School to students who had been at risk of failing.

Wheeler is survived by his wife of 33 years, Norene Burleigh Wheeler; sons David, John and Mark; 10 grandchildren and a half brother, Walter Wheeler. Memorial donations may be made to Hospice of Santa Barbara, 520 W. Junipero St., Santa Barbara, CA 93105.

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