Carl Wheeler admits to being a math geek.
His love affair with numbers began early in life. Now at age 81, the retired math teacher continues to tutor math students at Kapiolani Community College and spends his summers assisting teachers in South Africa.
He spends countless hours helping others by explaining complex mathematics that many have difficulty understanding. Yet people use mathematics in their daily lives without even realizing it, he said.
Wheeler, a Kahala resident, began traveling to South Africa in 2006 through Teachers Across Borders South Africa, a program started in 2001 by Punahou School teacher Yunus Peer that brings volunteer math and science educators to the country. He returned in 2007, 2008 and 2012, spending about five weeks there during the summer.
He said the program’s services are much needed.
"Teachers in South Africa don’t have a college education," he said. "We focus on the rural areas where the need is greatest. They don’t have electricity. They don’t have computers or facilities and not near enough textbooks."
But the lack of supplies doesn’t take away from their desire to learn.
Wheeler recalled one student’s request for more help.
"He asked if he could bring a friend the next day. He brought 40 friends. These kids wanted to learn so badly. They spent hours doing math on a Saturday.
"There’s a tremendous need and desire on the part of these kids. It’s a rewarding experience."
Wheeler used pipe cleaners to teach geometry principles. Luckily, math requires mainly pencils and paper, but "our science teachers would dive into Dumpsters to gather materials," he said.
Wheeler retired from Mid-Pacific Institute in 1997. He began working there in 1956, taking some short breaks to teach at Punahou School and the University of Hawaii.
"Mid-Pac has been a major part of my life. We lived in faculty housing, so my kids grew up at Mid-Pac," he said.
Wheeler raised three children at Mid-Pac — two now work at the school — and has six grandchildren ages 5 to 30.
He was divorced in 1973, and "I was granted custody of the kids. They were 13, 10 and 8. We somehow managed to survive."
Nowadays he spends lots of time watching his grandkids’ sporting events, and they take a family trip every other year.
Wheeler’s father was born in 1859, before the Civil War.
"He was 72 years old when I was born," Wheeler said. "He married my mom, who was half his age."
Wheeler’s older brother had epilepsy and died at an early age. His father died when he was 6 years old.
"It was kind of rough growing up," Wheeler said.
As a youngster he attended a small neighborhood school in upstate New York through second grade. He wanted to move to the local public school and, although he was 8 years old, entered the fifth grade. He graduated at the age of 15.
"It was awkward. My yearbook referred to me as pint-sized," he said.
Wheeler went on to earn a degree in mathematics at Hamilton College, a master’s degree in education at Cornell University and a master’s degree in arts and liberal studies at Wesleyan University.
Besides teaching, Wheeler maintains an active lifestyle.
An avid softball player, he continued to play in the Makule league for folks over age 70, but stopped for a while because he needed a knee replacement. He looks forward to getting back on the field soon.
Crossword puzzles are another way Wheeler keeps his mind sharp. They’ve been a lifelong hobby.
"It almost broaches addiction," he said. "I like the challenge."
Wheeler also sings in the church choir, which to him makes perfect sense.
"There’s a close relationship between math and music," he said.