Mrs. President

As anyone who knows the Wagners will attest, the success of the past 13 years owes a great deal to their partnership

By Susan Carini 04G

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Listening to Debbie Wagner talk about Freshman Move-In Day is a reminder of the best of her spirit—her readiness to assist in big or small ways while conveying, always, an infectious enthusiasm for Emory.

Her now-expansive T-shirt collection constituting a way of keeping time, Mrs. Wagner recalls the couple’s first appearance there—wanting to help a trustee move a child into Alabama Hall.

The Wagners pitched in, and boxes belonging to other students found their way into their arms. The president added a new lick to Move-In Day tradition, just happening to know a great moving crew.

“Now, with Jim’s cabinet officers joining us as well, it’s super fun,” Mrs. Wagner says. Although she confesses, “I don’t pick up the heavy stuff," in her time at Emory she has done her share of heavy lifting.

One thing that’s always been clear is how well the Wagners function in tandem. Though usually quick to deflect credit, Mrs. Wagner is clear about her role vis-à-vis the president.

“I can’t imagine doing the job without a spouse or partner,” she says. “It is hard. You need that other person to bounce things off. I try to help him keep perspective.” To do so herself, she quickly came to terms with that chief rival for her husband’s time and attention—Emory.

“The University becomes part of your family,” she says. “It has to be. When Emory calls during vacation, you have to answer. When Emory calls at midnight, you have to answer.”

Taming the House

The Wagners have established new traditions and spruced up older ones. The president would be the first to say that the person who keeps everyone engaged and coming back for more is his wife. Whenever Emory’s athletics teams win national championships, the Wagners host them for dessert. Year to year, they also entertain Wheel staff and the secret student societies.

Yet preparing for those events has been nothing compared to the curious tale of Halloween’s runaway popularity. In the early going, the Wagners would buy candy for Halloween but end up peering disappointedly through the blinds.

That changed in their third year when a student asked if she could trick-or-treat at Lullwater. “If you do,” said the president, “you will be the first.” Soon enough, the numbers were in the 150 range, with guests crowding around the fire, enjoying performances from Emory’s a cappella groups and cookies baked by Mrs. Wagner. Then, as some of those students became student assistants or resident assistants and spread the word, it went plumb crazy, with entire freshman floors showing up. Four years ago, attendance ballooned to 400-plus. Chai Tunes member and Emory College student Alex Caldwell performed at the event in 2014.

“I thought it was nice that the president of a university would open up his home like that to all of the students for Halloween,” Caldwell says. “Mrs. Wagner was so friendly and talked to a lot of students.”

Trustee emerita Laura Hardman 67C says of Mrs. Wagner, “She is so grounded in the values that represent the best of Emory. She has been a tremendous asset just because of who she is.”

There must have been moments when Mrs. Wagner felt as if she had been cast in a reality show starring her and Lullwater House. Arguably, no one has a more nuanced understanding of it. Though dignitaries have been hosted there since 1925, it wasn’t designed well for entertaining.

Mrs. Wagner oversaw a kitchen renovation that made donor events easier. The Wagners endured a new roof and alarm system being hammered and drilled into place. And leaks were known to spring up without warning (three major ones in a six-month period). But it also is a place of sanctuary. With the windows open at night, one can eavesdrop on the barred owls. Mrs. Wagner has transformed the house into a place of unsurpassed welcome.

“One of the things we are giving to the next family is the house in amazing shape.” She is able to laugh at the bumpy road it took to get there, saying, “We lived through all of it.”

Power to the people of Emory

One major effort by Mrs. Wagner was firmly establishing what had been a nascent Partners Program for the spouses and partners of Emory trustees and cabinet members.

She notes, “The trustees spend many hours doing Emory work; you very much want their spouses and partners engaged with Emory.” One Partners meeting that still has everyone talking was on Emory’s care of its Ebola virus disease patients. She recalls, “From the superlative work of the doctors, to the critical decisions made by the nurses, down to the smallest detail of the patients’ care, Emory became the gold standard in the world.”

The Association of American Universities (AAU) also has a partner program, and Mrs. Wagner has played a signal role in it as well. In addition, she served four years as a member of the AAU’s Program Committee and one year as its chair.

Asked what she will miss most about Emory, her answer comes without hesitation: “The people.” She adds, “It never ceases to amaze me what Emory is capable of. When I name one thing, I immediately can think of 10 more.”

Acknowledging the many notables who have come through Emory in her time here, Mrs. Wagner gravitates toward His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. She speaks of the honor of visiting him in Dharamsala, hosting him here, and the joy of “holding his hand and sitting next to him.”

Smudge the pig—a former pet of their daughter, Kimberly—was living at Lullwater in fall 2013 when the Dalai Lama was here. “That,” she pronounced with a broad smile, “is your little-known fact about life at Lullwater.”

During the years, Mrs. Wagner also has cherished moments with the Carters. The presidents and their wives get together every month for breakfast. She acknowledges a tendency almost to consider the collaboration routine. “When I step back from it, all I can say is wow. It has been so wonderful to get to know them.”

Four years ago, the Wagners bought a house in Hilton Head, South Carolina, that has become, she says, “our place of respite and refuge. Give us a year and let us see what is exciting us.” She wisely notes, “Our lives will need to be about being rather than doing.”

A grateful Emory community recognizes that this will be a major change indeed for Debbie Wagner.

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