The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 8, 2013

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Street preacher takes on role of Superman

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
news@joplinglobe.com

PITTSBURG, Kan. — A quick confession: I sometimes imagine I’m Lois Lane and am happy for weather that dictates I wear a trench coat.

But when I saw Superman running past Pittsburg City Hall last week, I thought perhaps my fantasy had become a little too real. Or perhaps I needed new contact lenses.

I posted a plea on Facebook: Could anyone help me locate him?

As it turns out, a wiry black man with a white beard and eyeglasses jogging in a red cape and tights is easy to spot — for everyone but me. Messages lit up my Facebook page but I kept missing him.

Finally, a friend saw him run past and, thinking fast, chased him down, got his cell phone number and sent it to me.

Superman agreed to meet me at the Pittsburg Public Library.

This is his story:

His name is Michael Wheeler. He is 61 years old — will be 62 in June. Born in Ardmore, Okla., he has called Kansas City, Mo., home for 57 years, but isn’t there much. He’s on the road, running, like Forrest Gump. It’s a comparison he likes to bring up in conversation.

He was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1971 during the Vietnam War. He served stateside, but said he became a drug user, a drinker, even suicidal. He said he finally got clean and put his life back on track.

He became a pastor. An evangelist. And he began running. He doesn’t own a car, traveling from town to town on a Greyhound bus.

He claims he has run in 130 marathons. A cursory Internet search confirms he ran in several recent marathons with finish times that ranged from three to four hours.

He also claims to have run seven laps around each capital building in all 50 states. (The seven laps is a nod to the number of times Israelites marched around Jericho).



He has frequented Super Bowls and is a regular at Arrowhead. He met President George Bush in Kansas City in 1989. And he has run, he says, in Japan, Guatemala, Korea, Honduras and Canada.

But it hasn’t been all about the media coverage and passport stamps.

He’s a street preacher, one who stands on the corner and quotes Scripture.

It has bothered some. He has been arrested 73 times in the United States for loitering and public disturbance. He has had rocks hurled at him, been whacked with a Bible he was holding, been mistreated by police, he claims, when he refused to “move along.”

Then, about a year ago, he got the idea for the Superman costume. Look closely and you’ll see the word “Jesus” on the big “S” across his chest.

“Everyone likes Superman,” he said. “So now the tables have turned. People wave and honk when I run by. Athletic teams like it. Police take my picture.”

Leaving the library after the interview, a patron smiled, said “Hello” to Wheeler and offered him a high-five. Wheeler was happy to oblige.

“I was Baptist, Pentecostal, non-denominational, and now I’m just a plain old believer,” he said. “I love people. And I love to keep moving, which is the key to aging. I’m having the time of my life, and I don’t intend to stop soon.”

He’ll be moving on soon, he said, but keep an eye out for him; he may be coming to a town near you.

 

FOLLOW ANDRA STEFANONI on Facebook at facebook.com/andrajournalist and on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.