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Grace abounding: Honoring the life of Debbie Wagner
Debbie Wagner

Debbie Wagner, wife of Emory President Emeritus James Wagner, was first lady of Emory for 13 years. The couple appears here at a farewell gala as Wagner retired as Emory president in 2016.

Debbie Wagner, wife of Emory President Emeritus James W. Wagner, passed away on Oct. 7 after a short battle with lymphoma. 

Throughout Wagner’s 13-year tenure, concluded in August 2016, the pair built a reputation for being extraordinarily accessible and down-to-earth.

Just two examples among many: He lived in on-campus housing his first year as he awaited the arrival of his family, seeing it as a chance to get to know the Emory community better. She often walked the trails within Lullwater Preserve, which long has been the home of Emory’s presidents, befriending people but not revealing her identity because titles didn’t matter. People did. 

“Debbie Wagner was an extraordinary champion of Emory University, and she is fondly remembered across our community for her leadership, friendship and many contributions as the first lady of Emory,” says Emory President Gregory L. Fenves.

“While we mourn her loss, her legacy of service and impact continues to inspire all who knew her. Debbie brought so much to Emory through her warmth, enthusiastic engagement and unflagging dedication, and our university is better because of her time here. Our thoughts are with President Wagner and his family during this difficult time,” he adds.

Coming wrapped in love and sharing it

Gary Hauk 91PhD, who at the time of the Wagner presidency was vice president and deputy to the president, recalls a resonant moment in the president’s inauguration speech, delivered April 7, 2004.

“As Jim wound to his close,” says Hauk, “he thanked a number of people, which was not unusual, and he ended by thanking Debbie, his lifelong partner. He paused and his voice caught as he said, ‘Debbie, I love you.’”

“They absolutely were a team,” notes Hauk, “who considered the university part of their extended family. Debbie had a vibrant energy that was always generous, always outwardly focused, always turning toward people.”

Their generosity took many forms.

One year, after helping a trustee’s child on Move-in Day, the Wagners stayed on, broadening their help to include other families. It became a tradition, and they even sported T-shirts that said “President’s Cabinet” on the back. Though Move-in Day is always hot and the boxes many, none of that mattered: the goal was to provide a sincere welcome to Emory. 

Secretary of the University Allison Dykes credits Mrs. Wagner with taking what had been a nascent Partners Program for the spouses and partners of Emory trustees and cabinet members and giving it solid footing. “She understood,” says Dykes, “that it was important for the larger board family to have the same sense of excitement about and dedication to serving Emory as the trustees themselves.” 

The Association of American Universities (AAU) also has a partner program, and Mrs. Wagner 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.

As a mother and hostess, she excelled.

Once her daughters, Kimberly and Christine, were born, Mrs. Wagner left a career teaching food service and devoted herself to their care as well as volunteer service in their schools and in her church.

One example of her dedication to her children preceded her time at Emory. The Wagners thought it important to give their younger daughter, Christine, a chance to finish high school in Ohio, where they were living at the time, so Mrs. Wagner remained with their daughters in Shaker Heights during President Wagner’s first year at Emory. 

Her cooking was marvelous, and she constantly pushed herself to embrace new techniques as they came along, such as hydroponic gardening. Emory students remember the joy of coming to Lullwater House at Halloween, when they found delicious candy topping many bowls and homemade cookies in abundance.

‘Mrs. P’ enriched many lives

Suzanne Eden-Antola, executive director of university events, worked alongside Mrs. Wagner as the Lullwater events manager for eight years and considers her “one of the sweetest, kindest, funniest people I have ever known.”

When Eden-Antola was pregnant with her daughter, Marella, Mrs. Wagner threw her a shower and gave the baby a four-foot-tall mermaid. On the eve of Marella’s 13th birthday, that mermaid still sleeps with her.

While her daughter was a student at the Clifton School, the request came: could Eden-Antola arrange a special visit to Lullwater for her daughter’s class? Naturally, Mrs. Wagner said yes in an instant. 

Debbie Wagner entertains children from the Clifton School during a visit to Lullwater.

As the school newsletter from that time relates: “She told us that most presidents’ wives are referred to as ‘The First Lady.’ However, she told the kids that they could call her Mrs. P, Mrs. President, Mrs. Wagner, or Mrs. Deb.”

Fielding questions from the students that included everything from “Do you have a basement?” to “Is anything broken?” Mrs. Wagner, or Mrs. P, gave the kids an unforgettable experience, ending the day with a snack on the patio overlooking the garden. 

“I can’t imagine my career at Emory if Debbie had not been part of it. She was not just the president’s wife; she was my friend,” notes Eden-Antola. 

Racking up the miles — and memories

Another staff person who enjoyed a significant working relationship with Mrs. Wagner is Leslie Wingate, now the director of campus and community relations for Emory Libraries but then in charge of presidential travel for the Emory Alumni Association.

Wingate would arrange programming in seven to 10 cities a year. As with any group that travels together regularly, soon the three had amassed a body of funny stories, small disasters and joy in one another’s company. 

Wingate would drive once they touched down in a given city, and President Wagner would be banished to the back seat to work while Mrs. Wagner sat next to Wingate.

“She was fun, easy to talk to and completely authentic,” says Wingate. They even survived a trip to a Columbus, Georgia, country club where Wingate had to be waved off the golf course onto which she had accidentally steered the car.

“Following the death of my mother in 2019, Debbie invited me to visit her and Jim at Hilton Head. As always, I felt part of their family. We cooked in and later tooled around in Jim’s antique car, which broke down, requiring that the engineer find just the right part at the local hardware store to get us back on the road,” Wingate says.

Josh Newton, senior vice president of advancement, traveled extensively with the Wagners for fundraising and says, “It was clear the balance Debbie provided Jim and the bond they had with each other.”

“To be greeted with her smile, her warmth and her genuine interest in how you were doing made every encounter with Debbie a bright spot in one’s day. She was a gift to all of us at Emory who had the opportunity to get to know her,” Newton says. 

Selflessly answering the call

Someone with a unique perspective on the Wagner years is Ben F. Johnson III 65C, now trustee emeritus but then chair of the board of trustees. Johnson acknowledges that there were formidable issues and pressures that Wagner faced during his time at Emory.

“To be president of a major university is an overwhelming job,” Johnson says. 

“Being the president’s partner may be even more so,” he continues. “Debbie’s contagious graciousness, joy and support were the quiet foundations that allowed Jim to be so effective and made each of us that she touched better. She could bear all the burdens with a light touch and a warm smile because she never viewed them as burdens but rather the service she was called and blessed to give.”

Mrs. Wagner’s life beyond Emory was equally rich. Learn more about the causes to which she was committed and the service that will celebrate her life.

In April 2016, Debbie and James Wagner were celebrated at a block party on the Emory campus thanking them for their service to the university.

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