Published 12:06 am Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Opp community is mourning the loss of a beloved doctor – Dr. Wheeler A. Gunnels.

Gunnels died Tuesday in Mizell Memorial Hospital, and services will be held today at 11 a.m., at Wyatt Funeral Home in Opp.

Gunnels left behind quite a legacy, known as one of Opp’s longest-serving doctors, and as a figurehead in the community, and as the namesake for the Mizell Memorial Hospital Wellness Center.

Born in Opp in 1936 to Sara Lilla and James Lester Gunnels, Gunnels returned to his hometown after earning his medical degree.

Gunnels opened his own practice, which he maintained for 30 years, and helped deliver more than 3,000 babies during his time as physician.

After he retired from general practice, Gunnels became even more involved at Mizell Memorial Hospital as medical director until December 2011, and served on the board of directors and the Mizell Memorial Foundation.

Through his work with the hospital came the wellness center, which opened in 2009, and features a racquetball court, an Olympic-size, fully heated swimming pool, a fitness facility and more.

“Words can truly not express what Dr. Gunnels meant to our community and the employees of Mizell Memorial Hospital,” said MMH CEO Jana Wyatt. “As many know, he was instrumental in the development of the hospital foundation, but what they may not know is that he also helped to start an employee foundation designed to help meet the needs of employees going through difficult times. His generosity and compassion for others will carry on through both of these foundations.”

Gunnels is remembered for his animated smile, genuine compassion and a bedside manner that was second to none.

Fellow coworkers and patients remembered him as “an amazing man,” “a knowledgeable doctor” and “rare and precious jewel.”

“What an amazing doctor and what an amazing man he was,” said Retha Johnson. “I used Dr. Gunnels from the beginning of my marriage until he retired. He was our family doctor as well as OB-GYN and then pediatrician.

“We lost our first baby and it was seven years before we finally had our Amy,” Johnson said. “He was just as proud of her as we were – at least it seemed that way to me. Every time we saw him, he sure did love on her.”

Johnson said Dr. Gunnels delivered their son, Andy, but retired before they had their son, Adam.

“He told me of his upcoming retirement plans,” she said. “I was devastated. I said, ‘Dr. Gunnels, how can I do this without you?’ He put his hand on mine, squeezed it and with that sweet, sweet smile, he said, ‘You’ll be fine. You know how to do this, and you are good at it.’ I knew I would be all right, but I sure have missed him throughout our lives.”

Former employees said Dr. Gunnels was a joy with whom to work.

“I worked at Mizell for seven years and saw him often and every time I saw him, he was smiling and he would speak,” said Pam Potter. “I would say, ‘Hey, Dr. Gunnels. How are you today?’ and he would smile and say, ‘Everything is copasetic Pam, and how are you?’ He will be missed walking the halls at MMH. That place will not be the same without him.”

Marlene Miller, who worked alongside Dr. Gunnels for 30-plus years, agreed.

“Dr. Gunnels was one of the most compassionate, caring and knowledgeable doctors I have had the privilege of knowing and working with,” she said. “He was always professional, but has a very humorous side, and loved to share stories of his younger years as well as current events in his life.

“He loved his family and cared so deeply about others as well,” Miller said. “ I worked with him in many areas of the hospital, but mainly in surgery, knowing him as a great surgeon. He always made himself available to anyone who needed his professional services and was respected by all for this characteristic. He was a great friend to our family and will be missed by many.”

Verlon and Patsy Cotter also worked alongside Dr. Gunnels at Mizell.

“Dr. Gunnels was first and foremost conscientiously professional with his patients and co-workers,” Patsy said. “He also exhibited dedicated interest in service to his community, public schools, hospital employees, and especially, boys and girls involved in all sports activities.”

“He dearly loved football,” Verlon said. “There was also a trait of his – he liked to have a good conversation and tell stories of past events and jokes relating to experiences by male attendants employed by the local hospital having a good laugh – showing his jovial side. He loved to enjoy life. It was a pleasure to have someone of his caliber and expertise to work with for many years.”

Current LBWCC marketing director Renee LeMaire grew up around Dr. Gunnels because her mother, Neat, worked side-by-side with him for 20 year. The two were good friends. Then later, she worked with him at Mizell and developed a friendship with him.

“Our loss is not only of a good and kind man, but also a brilliant physician, dedicated friend, and mentor to so many,” she said. “He was a great and patient teacher, provided tough answers when needed and guidance in difficult situations. Perhaps he is best known, though, for his contagious laugh, wonderful sense of humor, and encouragement to others.

“He was a giant of a man, not physically, but in all the attributes that matter in life,” LeMaire said. “People like Dr. Gunnels are a rare and precious jewel in the lives of those they touch, and he touched the lives of countless families. I’ve never known another person like him in his sincerity and dedication to helping others. He will be sorely missed.”

Star-News’ columnist Nancy Blackmon worked with Dr. Gunnels for more than six years, while she served as the community relations director at Mizell, but said she new him long before then.

“It was my great privilege to not only work with Dr. Gunnels, but also to consider him a friend,” Blackmon said. “On so many occasions, I saw his concern for his patients, how he loved his family and his friends and how deeply he cared about Mizell Memorial Hospital and all of its employees. Dr. Gunnels may not be walking among us anymore, but his spirit is alive in the hearts of all those he touched with his life. He will be missed, but he will also be remembered with love.”

Dr. Gunnels also served on the board of directors of CCB Community Bank at the time of his death, and had previously served as the Opp and Covington County Chamber of Commerce president from 1977 to 1978, when the chamber first organized the Opp Hall of Fame. He was inducted into that Hall of Fame in 2000.

Dr. Gunnels is survived by his wife, Betty Wise Gunnels; daughters and sons-in-law, Julie and Doug Nordeman and Jan and Andy Burcham; and granddaughters Emma and Katie Nordeman.