June 21, 2004

Another Wagner swings into Emory


By Eric Rangus


Debbie Wagner owes her marriage to creamed eggs.

That was part of the menu at Bob and Bernice Wagner's house on Easter Monday, 1970. Their middle son Jim, a high school junior, wasn't such a big fan of the dish, so he asked his older brother Rob if he could accompany him out to dinner that night. Rob had a date with the girl he was seeing, Kathy Kelley.

Rob agreed, but on one condition: That he could invite Kathy's younger sister, Debbie, a sophomore. That double date at a Silver Spring, Md., pizza parlor was Jim Wagner and Debbie Kelley's first. They continued throughout high school--nights out after football games, junior and senior proms, and countless more.

"Then I followed him to college," said the former Debbie Kelley, who married Jim on July 31, 1976, two months after she graduated from the University of Delaware. Jim graduated in 1975.

"But if my children did something like that ...." She didn't finish the thought as her voice trailed off into laughter. Debbie laughs easily and positive energy permeates everything she says, especially when she discusses her family. Obviously the Wagners' marriage is based on more than creamed eggs--vibrant personalities, devotion to faith and family, and a strong sense of partnership--although every relationship needs a catalyst.

And she doesn't have to worry about her kids. Daughter Kimberly, 21, is a senior at Miami University (Ohio) and spent the last six months in Europe on a study abroad trip. Younger daughter Christine, 17, will enter Clemson University this fall because of the strength of its education program.  

Now with both their children grown, Debbie is following Jim once again. This week, a moving van, filled with the collected possessions of a four-person family built on almost 28 years of marriage, will depart Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, the family's home since 1998. The three Wagner women with Debbie at the wheel will be close behind.

"I can't wait to get to Atlanta," Debbie Wagner said, seated in her family room for one of the last times, looking out on Shaker Heights High School--her children's alma mater--across the street less than 100 yards away. The charming five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath home was on the market for just a week. The location was ideal for any family with teenagers.

"This whole year I've felt like I lived two lives," she continued. "When I'm here in Cleveland, it's good; but I could tell as January and February were rolling around, it became harder and harder to leave Atlanta. My allegiance was switching."

When Jim Wagner accepted Emory's presidency, his family was faced with a major decision: Move down to Atlanta en force, or live separately, with Debbie and Christine in Ohio so that Christine could finish her senior year in Shaker Heights. After a family discussion, Christine chose to stay.

"I won't say I love sitting in the airport, nor would Jim say he liked being alone," said Debbie, who every 14 days or so would alternate visits with her husband between Cleveland and Atlanta. "But it's been fun in a lot of ways and a great way for me to segue into a new life.

"The last time I was in Atlanta, I was saying, 'The next time you see me, I'll be an official resident,'" she continued. "I'm just thrilled. I'm not looking forward to saying goodbye here. You commit to a community; I have talked to people who are military children and they've said that sometimes it was hard to give yourself over to friends, because you knew you were going to leave. But how sad life would be if you weren't able to be part of a community and develop friends."

Raised a Lutheran, faith and community involvement have been staples of Debbie's life since she was a child. Like her husband, she grew up in Silver Spring, a suburb of Washington, attending church two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. On Sundays, in between teaching Sunday school, attending youth group and singing in the choir, she and her friends would wander the Mall.

A teacher for the majority of her professional career, Wagner has been director of children's ministries for the last six years at Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian in nearby Cleveland Heights. She is in charge of all the education programs (primarily Sunday school) for children from birth through fifth grade. The job is part time, which has allowed her to devote the remainder of her energies to her family.

"'Stay-at-home mom' has a bad connotation, like you sit around eating bonbons or watching soap operas," Wagner said. "But I was a very active mom, and I wouldn't change it for the world. I like being with my kids."

This year especially, she and Christine became extremely close since--with Kimberly at college and Jim in Atlanta--they were the only ones at home most of the time. "We boosted each other when we needed it, so it was a nice companionship," Debbie said.

While still in Cleveland, Debbie has been offered committee memberships in Atlanta. Churches looking for Christian educators have dangled jobs.

She has turned them all down, choosing to devote her first year here to defining her role as Emory's first lady.

"This will be a discovery year," Wagner said. "Where do I fit in? What is my role? Where is my passion in university life? There is excitement and opportunity waiting for me in Atlanta. That's the fun part of it--the unknown."

While those questions and many others remain to be answered, Debbie is hardly coming to Atlanta blind. As the wife of the president, she frequently will accompany him to alumni functions around the country. Entertaining guests at Lullwater will be a major task as well. A home economics major at Delaware, entertaining is second nature to Debbie, even if she doesn't get to do all the cooking, as she prefers.

"I'm going to be an ambassador for Emory," she said. "And I'm comfortable with that. I am in a very privileged position, and we try very hard not to take advantage. Jim and I are down-to-earth, basic people, and we have to remember not to take things for granted. We've had breakfast with Jimmy Carter. How else would we have been able to do that?"

Last academic year, Lullwater underwent a renovation that will continue as the Wagners transform the president's residence into a home. The Wagners' Lullwater will be a blend of the old and new: Their dining room furniture from Cleveland will go in Lullwater's breakfast room (which has the same blue-striped wallpaper, to boot). The public space on the first floor will be ornate but much lighter in appearance than in previous incarnations. Christine gets new furniture in her room, while Kimberly's comes down from Cleveland. Jim and Debbie will have new bedroom furniture as they leave most of the old stuff behind with friends from church.

Debbie said she expects Christine, just two hours away in Clemson, will be back more often during the upcoming school year, although both daughters will be in Atlanta through the summer. "I'll need to make sure I'm still a mom and that I'm home enough for Christine when she wants to come back and bring her friends," Debbie said. "How cool would that be–to bring your college friends to Lullwater?"

As Christine begins a new chapter in her life, so do her parents. They'll move into a new home and take up a new hobby, golf ("I've always been a better putter than Jim," Debbie said. "Many times I beat him at miniature golf while we were dating, which I know is a no-no, but I did it anyway.").

"I recall last summer I was at an event with some of the trustees," Jim said. "It was right around the time of the [presidential] announcement, and several people had had a chance to meet Debbie." At that point, Wagner continued, the family had decided that he would spend the first year in Atlanta on his own.

"I told them that Emory would have a better president after Debbie arrives," he said. "This first year has been a great experience, but I would never want to do it again."