Dick and Bobbie Wagner in a recent family photo. Dick Wagner died Sunday at his home in Lyons following a heart attack.

This Waco UPF-7 bi-plane was a favorite of Dick Wagner’s.

Wagner leaves long legacy in aviation, philanthropy

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

If there was one thing Dick Wagner didn’t want, it was for people to make a fuss over him.

To orphans in the Philippines, lepers in Bolivia and prisoners in Belize he was an angel and a hero.

But no matter how they tried to thank him – whether it was with a formal ceremony or a plaque on the wall – he’d tell them to keep their money and spend it on something useful.

Somewhere in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, there is a boy – the son of a woman touched by Wagner’s philanthropic works – named Ricardo in honor of the quiet, affable man who would rather spend his money on someone facing adversity half a world away than on a new pair of jeans for himself.

That kind of tribute, according to Bobbie Wagner, Dick’s wife of 53 years, carried profound meaning for her husband, who had a special place in his heart for children and the oppressed.

That heart – the impossibly large and tireless muscle that cheerfully bore the burden of causes stretching from his hometown of Burlington to remote corners of the globe – succumbed on Sunday.

Richard H. Wagner died of a heart attack Jan. 1 at his home in Lyons. He was 74.

Wagner, who had quadruple coronary bypass surgery at the age of 56, remained trim and fit over the past 18 years, according to Bobbie, whose nickname has all but replaced her formal name of Roberta.

“He was still sawing wood and recently went climbing the hills around Reedsburg,” she said, noting that Dick’s younger brother had trouble keeping up with him.

For a man who took pride in saying he never worked a day in his life – he loved what he did, so he didn’t consider it work – there was no slowing down.

That was the impression Bobbie got in the early stages of their 60-year love story.

She recounted the story of their first date when she was a 12-year-old freshman (she skipped a grade) and he was a 14-year-old freshman (he repeated a grade due to illness-related absences) at St. Mary’s High School (now Catholic Central).

He took her to the homecoming dance and at the end of the night he kissed her – which she told her mother about.

“Mom said, ‘He doesn’t let any grass grow under his feet, does he?’” Bobbie recalled. “It’s been 60 years and he still hasn’t let any grass grow.”


A humble servant

For those who knew him, he was a pioneering pilot, enterprising businessman and unassuming philanthropist.

For his family, he was a loving husband and father whose personal frugality betrayed the generosity he showered on others.

And for his hometown he was largely anonymous by choice, but nonetheless a powerful force for good.

“It’s an extremely sad day for the city,” said Burlington Mayor Bob Miller, who first met Wagner several years ago as Dick and Bobbie spearheaded efforts to renovate and expand the dated and undersized Veterans Memorial Building by making the lead gift for the project. “If it wasn’t for him and the Wagner Foundation, Veterans Terrace wouldn’t have happened.

“He filled in so many gaps for the city,” Miller added, noting that Wagner recently donated his expertise to help the CATHE center appraise and sell its pipe organ to fund continued operation of the non-profit cultural center.

“Here’s a guy who we know is a multimillionaire who wears cowboy boots, jeans and flannel shirts. That’s how unassuming and unpretentious he is,” Miller added.


A pilot at heart

According to his wife and daughters, other than his love of family, Wagner’s greatest passion was aviation.

He obtained his pilot’s license as soon as he turned 16, even before he was licensed to drive a car. At 18 he became the youngest commercial pilot in the state.

He went on to have a distinguished 27-year career as a commercial airline pilot for Frontier, North Central, Republic and Northwest Airlines. He took early retirement in 1983 to focus his efforts full-time on Wag-Aero, the business he and Bobbie founded 20 years earlier.

The two – along with daughters Marcy and Julie, who as children filled orders for the business in the basement of their Lyons home – built Wag-Aero into a world leader in the manufacture and distribution of replacement parts for out-of-production aircraft.

“You could walk into airports anywhere in the world and there was always a Wag-Aero catalog there with dog-eared pages,” daughter Julie O’Neill said.

Wagner conceived the idea for the business after realizing a rubber grommet he helped manufacture as a high school-age employee at Lavelle rubber products would be a perfect fit as a plug for the aircraft fuselage inspection holes required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“He was inventive,” his daughter, Marcy Essman, said. “He thought he could get it done quicker and cheaper than everyone else.”

Although he retired as a commercial pilot of DC-9 Super 50s, Wagner still preferred the open-cockpit, seat-of-your-pants flying of vintage planes. His personal favorite was a 1939 Piper Cub, according to son-in-law Ken Essman, who is also a pilot.

“‘That’s flying at its best’ he’d say,” Essman said.

Wagner often took Bobbie and his two daughters to fly-ins and other aviation events in a Waco UPF-7, an open-cockpit biplane that was in the family for 35 years.

“We’d be sitting outside and a plane would go overhead. Before anyone could look up, he’d holler out what it was based on the sound – and 99 percent of the time he was right,” Marcy Essman said.

Eventually Wag-Aero began developing, testing and marketing kit-built airplanes. Wagner served as the test pilot and chief designer.


Foundation takes off

According to Bobbie, the couple started the Wagner Foundation Ltd. in 1978 to promote and preserve aviation history. But it wasn’t long before the foundation began delving into humanitarian work.

When the Wagners sold Wag-Aero in 1995, they turned their full attention to the foundation.

“Everything just spiraled,” Bobbie said, noting that through their aviation connections they found no shortage of worthy humanitarian projects. “It’s been so rewarding – just unbelievable.”

One of the first humanitarian projects involved providing a Piper Cub to a Bolivian missionary, who needed it to reach the 32 communities he ministered to.

That relationship with Father Michael Gould resulted in the Wagners providing financial assistance to remodel and maintain an orphanage, build a residence for 40 disabled high school students, and develop an enterprise loan program – programs that continue today.

In an email sent Tuesday to Bobbie, Fr. Gould wrote about Dick: “He was full of ideas for his work (and) family … and worked tirelessly to expand the foundation. None of it was for his good name. He had no time for pomp or acknowledgements or plaques of honor – just get the job done and help others to help themselves have a better life.”

Today the foundation reaches across oceans and continents with monetary aid and aircraft to places including the Philippines, South Africa and Central America.


Aiding EMTs, prison

In the late 1990s, the Wagner Foundation partnered with the Burlington Rotary Club and its counterparts in Belize to create what has become BERT – the Belize Emergency Response Team. The Wagners spearheaded the program, which included providing airplanes and ambulances – including two retired ambulances from the Burlington Area Rescue Squad – to establish an emergency response network for the country. The program included training to prepare the emergency medical technicians needed to staff the service.

After establishing a presence in Belize, the Wagner Foundation became involved in the privatization of the Belize Central Prison under the auspices of the faith-based Kolbe Foundation. The Wagners donated the funds needed to construct a separate dormitory to house juvenile offenders and keep them segregated from the general prison population.

Wagner’s Youth Facility, as it has been dubbed, aims to prepare boys ages 14-18 to return to society with faith-based structure, life-skill training and vocational education.

“Everyone should have the experience of walking through that prison,” Bobbie said. “Our prison system could learn a few things from what they’re doing down there.”

John Woods, chairman of the Kolbe Foundation, informed his colleagues of Dick Wagner’s death in a letter that listed his many contributions. Woods wrote: “We should remember him every time we see a BERT ambulance and also when we witness or hear of someone who turned his life around while serving time.”

Even up to his death, Dick’s philanthropic efforts were going strong. The foundation recently donated the family’s personal airplane – a Piper Twin Comanche – to an organization that flies medical professionals into the remote areas of the Bolivian Andes. Dick had also become involved in the restoration of a steam engine for use on a historic rail line near Green Bay.

In keeping with his humble style, Wagner requested that no wake or funeral be held. Instead, a simple memorial Mass was celebrated Thursday at St. Charles Catholic Church in Burlington.

Marcy Essman said the family contemplated moving the service to Veterans Terrace – the facility her father championed – but rejected the notion because it wouldn’t be in keeping with her father’s humble style.

“He’d just tell everybody to get on with their lives,” she said.

Fr. Gould, perhaps, summed it up best when he speculated the poor and downtrodden would finally give Dick the recognition he shunned.

“May they give Dick the royal welcome, which he always avoided here, into the grand mansion of God’s heavenly kingdom.”