When Dolores Gossner Wheeler was asked to take over as president and CEO of her family’s Logan cheese plant in 1984, she was reluctant.
It was the employees at Gossner Foods who finally convinced Wheeler — the daughter of company founder Edwin Gossner Sr. — that she was the right woman for the job.
When Wheeler first met with supervisors, she told them she would need to rely on their expertise while she learned the business, Greg Rowley, Gossner’s executive vice president, recalls. “She said, ‘I’ll be the quarterback and you make me look good.’ In reality, she made us all look good.”
This week, Utah dairy farmers, rodeo fans, doctors and even Catholic nuns remembered Wheeler — who died Nov. 21 of breast cancer — as a team builder with a generous heart and an understated ego.
Wheeler, who was 81, continued to work until just a few weeks before her death.
In October, the Gossner Foods board of directors selected Kristan Jo Earl, Wheeler’s granddaughter, to be the new company president.
Born July 7, 1937, to Swiss immigrants Edwin Gossner Sr. and Josephine Gossner, Wheeler spent her childhood in Wisconsin and California, where her father was a cheesemaker. She was 4, according to her online obituary, when her family drove through Cache Valley on a vacation to Yellowstone and decided to set down cheesemaking roots in “the little Switzerland of the Rockies.”
A former rodeo queen who enjoyed barrel racing and spirited horses, Wheeler married Allen Wheeler in 1955. They lived on a farm in Lewiston, where they reared two daughters.
“Even though Dolores had been raised in town, she had always been a country girl at heart and quickly learned how to raise and kill her own chickens, operate a tractor and drive a farm truck without any brakes,” her obituary states.
Allen Wheeler died two years ago.
During Wheeler’s 34-year tenure as company leader, Gossner Foods has prospered, producing 20 percent of all the Swiss cheese manufactured in the United States.
With 550 workers, it is a major employer in Cache Valley and a major player in the agricultural industry. Its Logan plant also uses 1.8 million pounds of milk a day — purchased from 120 Cache Valley farms.
Gossner Foods operates a second cheese plant in Heyburn, Idaho.
Under Wheeler’s watch, Gossner Foods also began producing ultra-high-temperature milk, which needs no refrigeration. The shelf-stable product is used by the military and is shipped internationally.
Wheeler didn’t run the company for personal fame or wealth, said Rowley. “She felt a need to serve the producers and the agricultural industry and take care of the employees.”
Finding the “cheapest milk” wasn’t in her nature, he said. “She always said we need to give the dairyman as much as we can so they can continue in the business.”
Mark Gibbons, owner of Gibbons Brothers Dairy, Lewiston, has been sending milk to the Gossner plant for several years and praised Wheeler for her devotion to Utah’s agriculture and dairy industries.
“She treated producers as equals, and she appreciated the role they play in food production,” he said. “She knew that if dairy producers went out of business, there wouldn’t be any milk to process.”
Wheeler was just as generous in the community. Those who posted online condolences said she had been a regular donor to the Bridgerland High School Rodeo Club. She also regularly sent Gossner products to the Sisters of St. Benedict when the now-closed convent was in Ogden.
During her life, Wheeler lost several close family members to cancer, including her father, mother and older brother. Her last great passion was to improve the options for cancer treatment in Cache Valley.
Last spring, Gossner Foods, under Wheeler’s direction, donated $2 million to the Logan Regional Hospital to expand its current cancer facility. The new 9,000-square-foot building, which will be named the Gossner Cancer Center, will allow for more oncologists to be hired and will put all of its cancer services — from exam rooms to treatment areas — in a central location.
During her cancer treatments, Wheeler became frustrated that services were scattered on various floors, creating a burden for patients.
The cancer center is currently under construction and should open in spring 2019.
The donation, the largest single gift in the hospital’s 100-year history, exemplifies how Wheeler operated her family business and her personal life, said Rowley. “She not only identified a problem, she would do whatever she could to fix it.”