Bernice Wagner knew her middle son James was destined for great
things when he was 7 years old.
“Jim’s dad traveled a lot, and the children and I were home alone,” she
said, seated comfortably in the den of the Stone Mountain home she and her husband,
Bob—President Jim Wagner’s father—have shared for 29 years.
“I was ironing, and the iron broke,” she continued. “I was
just furious because I had a lot of work to do. Jim heard me in the kitchen raising
a fuss. He had been reading. He came in and said, ‘Don’t worry, Mom.
I’ll fix it.’”
With nothing to lose, Bernice handed over the iron and moved on to other activities.
A short while later, young Jim returned with the iron and announced, “Here
Mom, I think it’s fixed.”
The ironing got finished that night.
“Looking back, that really points the way he was going to go,” said
Bernice, 78. “He was going to fix things.”
President Wagner’s parents are longtime residents of the Atlanta metro
area. They relocated here in 1975 when Bob Wagner was named president of the
Norcross-based Potash & Phosphate Institute (PPI). He retired from PPI in
1988. Prior to moving to Georgia, Bob, an agricultural scientist, worked for
the U.S. Department of Agricul-ture, and was head of the agronomy department
at the University of Maryland and director of the state’s extension service.
Bernice, a medical technician prior to the birth of her first son Rob Jr. in
1950, became a stay-at-home mom thereafter. She raised three boys: Jim arrived
in 1953 and the youngest son Doug five years later.
The iron and a lot of lamps, radios and televisions aside, not every repair project
came out successfully for Jim. “He sometimes tried gluing things when he
should have been welding them,” Bob said, recalling one of Jim’s
more memorable projects—for better or worse.
While a teenager, Jim tried to glue together the fuel system of a 1926 Dodge.
Cars in those days didn’t have fuel pumps; the fuel system essentially
consisted of a half-gallon can that was run by gravity. When the system broke,
Jim repaired it using an epoxy glue. It didn’t last long.
“Given the vibration, heat and solvent activity of the gasoline, that fix
did not last very long,” Jim said. “Its one of those stories that’s
held over my head as an example of bad—very bad—engineering.”
That incident, of which Wagner is reminded frequently, was the exception rather
than the rule. Both Jim and his father long have been antique car enthusiasts
and have built or restored several cars. Jim has a Model T Ford that just recently
arrived at Lullwater the same weekend its owner moved in earlier this month.
The confidentiality of Wagner’s pursuit of the Emory presidency kept him
from revealing his interest to his parents, but as soon as the news was safe
to discuss, Bob and Bernice were let in on the secret.
“The greatest excitement from my standpoint was to see how excited Jim
was about coming to Emory,” said Bob. “Jim really was excited after
he looked into Emory thoroughly. Of course, they’re running him ragged
now, but he sees real progress and real potential at Emory.”
“Dad has always been a wise counselor and mentor,” Jim said when
asked to describe his relationship with his parents. “He continues to provide
wise counsel to this day. He follows Emory in the news like a hawk, and I value
his questions and advice.” It’s been decades since the Wagners have
lived in the same city as Jim. And they have used the new proximity to their
“He’ll call sometimes and ask us if we want to go to dinner,” Bernice
said. “Then he’ll swing by and we’ll go to a local place and
talk, talk, talk.”
Wagner’s parents have visited him on campus as well. They have seen his
former apartment on the Clairmont Campus as well as the Lullwater house.
When Wagner is inaugurated as Emory’s 19th president on April 2, his parents
will be proudly looking on from the crown. They will attend not only the ceremony
itself, but also the VIP lunch before and the banquet after.
“We are really looking forward to it,” Bob said. “It’s
a once in a lifetime thing.”