Dr. Wheeler “Mac” McGregor has spent more than 60 years at Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tullahoma where he has developed sophisticated technology ranging from projectiles to satellites.
Though he officially retired several years ago, this AEDC senior scientist is still involved in a Missile Defense Agency satellite called NFIRE (Near Fields Infrared Experiment).
While he has devoted much of his life to science, in the past 15 years he has devoted much of the income earned in that career to provide counseling to thousands of people through the Alliance for Community Outreach.
The Alliance for Community Outreach was founded in Manchester in 1997 by a group of local citizens who saw the need for a faith-based ministry to serve the entire community. At that time, the ACO was staffed by Benny Benjamin, a minister known for his counseling skills. In 1999, Dr. Eban Gilbert became a part-time counselor in McMinnville while still working at Taft Youth Center in Pikeville. Dr. Gilbert has moved on, but a counseling office is still maintained in McMinnville with Dr. Gilbert’s wife, Linda, assuming counseling duties.
McGregor says his reasons for founding Alliance for Community Outreach were straightforward.
“To help people out,” McGregor said. “It’s just that simple. Especially people who couldn’t help themselves.”
Funding was always an issue because it was decided the counseling services would be provided at no cost.
“We’ve never charged anything for any of our counseling,” McGregor said. “We took care of that by volunteer giving and a few churches have helped us. Christ Family Church helped us for a long time and Forest Mill helped us.”
ACO also got several employee assistance programs with companies like Ben Lomand, Caney Fork and Cumberland Lumber.
Linda Gilbert says McGregor has provided the lion’s share of funding for the program over the years and has only recently turned it over to the board since his health has precluded his working full time.
“He’s supported it all these years and it’s done so much for the community,” said Gilbert. “He’s had an amazing life for someone who was raised on a small farm in Warren County.”
McGregor, who currently lives in Manchester, spent most of his youth in Warren County. He finished eighth grade at Fairview Elementary School. He says he remembers many of his teachers at Fairview, like Frank Kirby and Minnie Grove. He attended one year of high school at Irving College before moving to Central High School where he graduated.
“My father moved to town and opened a grocery store across from the garment factory,” McGregor recalled of the store called McGregor’s Grocery.
“We ran that for years and years,” McGregor said. “I learned to cut meat on Spring Street. My uncle R.J. Boyd had a store there. And I learned butchering from that.”
Later on McGregor learned to cure hams and became well known for that skill.
McGregor spent a year at David Lipscomb, where he met and married his beloved wife, Frankie, and originally majored in journalism. The switch to engineering physics came due to a less than encouraging teacher.
“I went to Lipscomb with every intention of being a journalist,” McGregor said. “Because I had been editor of the Bulldog Barker at Central and we won the state championship for the best paper that year. But I ran into an English teacher who didn’t like anything I did.”
Eventually there was an assignment to write a short story. McGregor wrote his own, and then three friends offered him $10 to write one for each of them. He needed the money so he did it.
“I got a C on mine and they all got an A,” McGregor recalled.
He decided to change majors and move to UT Knoxville. McGregor wound up at AEDC in the same kind of roundabout way. He got his degree in 1951 and began looking for a job.
He was originally going to take a job at Oak Ridge for $3,400 a year, but instead decided on a job at AEDC for $3,600 because it was closer to home.
That was the beginning of a more than 60-year career at AEDC, and even though he is ostensibly retired, he really can’t stay away.
The NFIRE satellite project was only supposed to last for two years, but it’s still working and providing data after five years.
His scientific career has been very successful, but he has a great affection for his work with Alliance for Community Outreach. When asked how it makes him feel to know he has been a part of helping thousands of people he has a short and succinct answer.
“Useful,” he said. “It makes me feel good to have helped.”