The charitable Energizer bunnies move on
Judge A.J. and Joan Wagner say goodbye
By Jim Bucher
Photo: May 8, 2012 DCP cover story on A.J. Wagner
Hearing the news was like getting hit over the head with a shovel. (That hasn’t happened yet, but you get my drift.)
My good friend A.J. Wagner is leaving his adopted town of Dayton, Ohio.
If the name rings a bell, here’s why. He was a candidate for mayor, a long time lawyer, on the State Board of Education, and his name was plastered on every gas pump in Montgomery County during his time as auditor.
But most importantly, this compassionate man, whom I’ve never, ever seen angry—well maybe until the recent presidential election—is a quiet warrior with his political aspirations cemented early in life.
“My dad was a city council member in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Because I was raised in economic poverty, I owe much to the people of America who made it possible for me to attend college and law school,” A.J. says. “Public service was a way to repay the debt I owe for all I have been given while trying to assure others have the same opportunities.”
He is the third of 18 kids—no, that’s not a typo.
“I graduated from the College of Steubenville in 1973 with a degree in teaching,” he says. “Two weeks later, I married Joan McGuinness Wagner, whom I met in college. Together we took up residence in Richmond, Ohio, and taught school.”
From there, it was off to our beloved city. And in 1977, A.J. graduated with the first class of the University of Dayton School of Law.
Then came a law practice until he took a judicial job as a Probate Court Referee in 1982. Next, A.J. became an acting judge in Dayton Municipal Court from 1987 to 1991, when he was elected auditor. Finally in 2000, he was elected a Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge, until retiring in 2010, and returned to the practice of law and mediation.
Wait, hold on—forgot he was and an accomplished author, and a columnist here at Dayton City Paper, too.
“My hobby is writing children’s books,” A.J. says. “Have four books published to date. One of them, ‘A Miracle on Alaska Street,’ is a character education book written for Dayton Public Schools and used in schools around the United States. Others are ‘How Old is Old?,’ ‘Daddy Stories,’ and ‘A Pocket Full of Smirks.’ All net proceeds from the books have been used for various family charities.”
And he has at least one more in him.
“It is my hope to write a book on systemic discrimination and the U.S. Supreme Court’s failure to recognize it as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s requirement for equal protection of the laws,” he says.
Now, I can’t continue this column without a shout out to A.J.’s better half, my beloved Joan.
“She was the director of Marianist Strategies at the University of Dayton until her recent retirement. Together, we have created a ministry with UD students, opening our home to students for food, comfort, community, and prayer,” A.J. says.
If there were such an idea, these two are the Energizer bunnies of giving back time and talent.
“We seldom have a weekend to ourselves. Our house has been a home away from home to hundreds of UD students,” he says. “This weekend is typical with students from Toledo, Indianapolis, and Saint Louis dropping in for a visit.”
Now, time for the Barbara Walters questions. What’s been his most joyous experience while here?
“Witnessing the birth of my children is the top,” he says. “On a professional level, it was probably winning my first election for auditor.”
And a low point?
“I have been too blessed to have any serious regrets, though I wish my children lived in Dayton,” he says.
Which brings us to the sad part for me and many others, but not for the Wagners. They have two very good reasons for leaving us:
“Identical twin granddaughters will be born in April. Our daughter has asked for help. We’ll be moving to State College, Pennsylvania, to answer the call.”
Finally, any sage advice for someone thinking of heading down the political road from Judge Wagner?
“Know that you will not likely get rich, people will hate you, you will lose your privacy, it is a huge time commitment, compromise is necessary to be effective, money and power are corrosive to the soul. Go for it!”
On a personal note, I love these two who guided me, and hundreds of others, in more ways than I can count. Don’t know how I’d ever repay them, but, hopefully, a lifelong friendship will suffice.
I will miss you, big brother.
Cheers to a true Dayton Original, via Beaver Falls of course.