By Jim Nieman
David Wheeler, 69, is retiring this summer after 24 years as a professor of congregational ministry at Johnson University—and 48 years of ministry overall—but he plans to continue his comedy portrayal of “Johnson historian Clyde Dorkman” for the school’s Senior Saints in the Smokies yearly gatherings, the next one occurring later this month.
Clyde Dorkman is treated like a mega-celebrity by the hundreds of folks who come to Senior Saints year after year.
“He is a rock star here—I’m not kidding,” Wheeler said. “[While] he might not be all that funny to people who are not familiar with Senior Saints, [the regular attendees] are laughing before I say anything. They are primed.”
Wheeler developed the character shortly after arriving to teach at the school in 1997. The late Wilbur Reid Jr., an administrator at the time, encouraged Wheeler to do a comedy routine for the Senior Saints.
“I decided to act like I was really nervous. The Clyde Dorkman character is about half Foster Brooks and the other half is the guy from Hee Haw—the guy who gave the news on the radio station KORN.” Wheeler said it didn’t occur to him for several years that “unconsciously I had meshed those two together.”
Dorkman provides a yearly update for attendees about what’s been happening at the university. Those reports traditionally include comic jabs at JU president “Schmitch” (Tommy Smith) and former presidents “Eubankees” (David L. Eubanks) and “Weedeater” (Gary E. Weedman).
“Clyde can say anything he wants about these people,” Wheeler said. In fact, Dorkman has campaigned for the school’s presidency the last two times there were vacancies. When Smith became president in 2018, Dorkman grumbled, “I didn’t know Dr. Schmitch knew so many people in Russia.”
Wheeler said he’s always nurtured his comedy bent.
“It comes from my flawed ego. I like to be liked. I love to be loved. But at heart I’m an introvert.”
Richard Clark calls Wheeler “a unique mix of huge stage presence and personality with extreme humility and servant attitude.” Clark, Johnson University’s vice president for advancement, said Wheeler “will do whatever will help the cause. When he teaches a class or workshop, it is always full to overflowing because he is loved and people know the content is going to be worthwhile. He is hilariously funny but also believable.”
24 YEARS OF SERVING CHURCHES
Wheeler earned his Bachelor of Science in Bible from Johnson. (He subsequently earned two master’s degrees at Kentucky Christian University.) During his years as an undergrad, he met Cathy, his wife of 48 years. Together, they were part of New Encounter, Johnson’s touring music group. (“The only reason I got to be in the group is because I owned the only drum set on campus in 1970.”)
After college, Wheeler served 4 years in youth ministry in Kingsport, Tenn., then 8 years in youth ministry with Converse (Ind.) Church of Christ, before being “demoted” to senior minister of CCC and serving for 12 more years. Converse is a town of about 1,000 between Marion and Kokomo.
“That church grew to 700 to 800—occasionally over 1,000,” Wheeler said. “Man, I was hanging onto God’s coattails.” He was feeling overwhelmed and burned out when he made the switch to Johnson. He ultimately has served 24 years in church ministry and 24 years in Christian college ministry.
“Cathy is the only reason I was able to survive all these years.”
The Wheelers maintain many close friendships with folks from Converse Church of Christ and visit the church a few times each year.
“I’ve been connected with that church for 44 years,” Wheeler said. “It just has the greatest people in it. . . . It’s not a knock against college, but you share life on a deeper level in a church setting than in a college setting.”
24 YEARS OF SERVING JOHNSON UNIVERSITY
At Johnson for the first 16 years or so, he was the youth and children’s ministry coordinator. At about age 60, he suggested Johnson find a younger person for that role. For the last 8 years, he’s taught a variety of adult-oriented ministry and preaching classes.
“I guess my specialty has been pastoral ministry. The students call it the ‘Marry ’Em and Bury ’Em’ Class,” Wheeler said. It also covered such practical matters as hospital visits, administration, and baptism. “I had students practice on each other.”
Wheeler said he harnessed his church ministry experiences to teach at Johnson, joking that he didn’t want to waste “all of that suffering.” He said he’s tried to teach students “what I’ve learned and what I wish people had taught me when I was at Johnson.”
He said his teaching style resembles Jesus’ style in that he leans heavily on telling stories.
“People may not get the point you are making initially. But when you tell them a story, the people get it. . . . I’ve been able to pass on what I’ve learned.”
Wheeler, the son of a minister, also pointed out he has lived in parsonages or in “provided” housing his entire life. That might be some sort of record, he hinted.
Last Friday—which was his final day of teaching in-person—Wheeler said he and his wife will move into a retirement house this summer in nearby Sevierville. He happily shared that both of the couple’s daughters and all five grandchildren live nearby.
“There are other people who can teach my classes at Johnson, but there are only two other people besides Cathy and me who can be grandparents to our grandchildren.”
ADVOCATING FOR CHRISTIAN GRANDPARENTS
In fact, advocating for Christian grandparenting will be a major part of Wheeler’s life as he moves forward. He serves in a core leadership role with the Legacy Coalition, an organization that encourages and resources responsible, active, and intentional Christian grandparenting. Wheeler will speak at the group’s “Legacy Grandparenting Summit 2021” Oct. 21-22 in Birmingham, Ala. The gathering will be simulcast across the country.
Folks helping lead the Legacy Coalition come from a variety of faith backgrounds, and many of them are “scared to death of the world our grandchildren are growing up in,” Wheeler said.
Johnson University plans to partner with Wheeler in this effort.
“We are hosting a [Legacy Coalition] program on our Florida campus in January,” Clark said. Additionally, JU plans to schedule a Legacy program in Tennessee and work to send the Wheelers to some partner churches to discuss the important role grandparents play.
Wheeler said he may continue to teach occasionally at Johnson, but he definitely will continue to reprise his role as Clyde Dorkman at Senior Saints in the Smokies (or “Old Folks in the Forest,” as Dorkman sometimes calls it).
“Two years ago, we hosted a cruise for our [Johnson University] Florida campus and missed our timing on the last day, and [we] had to cut out some of Clyde’s appearance,” Clark said. It nearly prompted a mutiny.
“That’s job security!” Wheeler said.
This year’s Senior Saints event will be virtual for the second year in a row. Normal attendance over the three weeks of Senior Saints each year is 900 to 975, Clark said. Last year’s shorter digital event quadrupled the Senior Saints’ reach, and “we hope to have a similar result this year. . . . [Still], we can’t wait until we return to face-to-face. There really is nothing like it that we know of.”
“Our attendees come hungry for fellowship and entertainment but also for the content that we provide that equips them for service and ministry,” Clark continued. “Our attendees are not retired from serving kingdom purposes. [In fact, they] end up being tremendous representatives of the school to their churches in terms of recruiting students and encouraging churches to partner with us financially, not to mention the direct support they provide personally.”
THIS YEAR AND NEXT
This year’s virtual event will take place May 24-26, but dates have already been lined up for three on-campus Senior Saints gatherings in 2022: May 23-27, May 30–June 3, and June 6-10.
The annual program dates back to 1984, the year Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair.
“It was an opportunity to provide programming to people who were on Johnson’s doorstep,” Clark said. “Leadership soon realized there was unmet demand and it eventually evolved a vision [to offer] the best Christian programming available to seniors east of the Mississippi.”
Wheeler is looking forward to this year’s edition of Senior Saints, but he can’t wait to reunite for next year’s in-person gathering, both for the inspiration—Bible study, preaching, workshops—and for the fellowship.
“There are so many wonderful memories. . . . You just fall in love with these people,” he said.
And Wheeler’s alter ego, Clyde Dorkman, is just as eager to share what’s been happening at Johnson University . . . to tell about how he’s been moved to an “unair-conditioned apartment above the sewage treatment plant.” His only creature comfort—an “ovulating fan.”
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.
View a sampling of the comedy from David Wheeler (aka, Clyde Dorkman) from the 2020 Senior Saints event.