The walls of Coupeville resident Robert M. Wagner’s study are papered with awards and honors from his years of public service and commitment to lifelong education.
On the surface, Wagner appears as any other well-to-do Coupeville retiree. He worked diligently through a career in wine and liquor sales – after a stint in the fashion industry – before going into a career in public service, culminating in the seven and a half years he served as a “senior senator” for the California State Legislature.
All of this work paid off, because when it came time to retire, Wagner had options. Yet his move from California to Whidbey Island was more serendipitous than a typical cross-country relocation. He did not have a job offer, or even a familial tie pulling him to the island.
Fell in love with island’s beauty
“What drew me to Whidbey Island, interestingly enough, is when I had a small, high quality store in South Pasadena, Calif., I employed Tony Turpin as a delivery boy,” Wagner said. “After he left my business – in later years – he contacted me, asked me to come visit him and introduced me to Coupeville.”
Wagner fell in love with the island’s beauty and subsequently chose Coupeville as his new home – settling in a house that he calls the finest home on the points of vision, occupation and usage that he has ever had.
“In this particular area on Whidbey Island, the Town of Coupeville, I acquired a purchase of a little over two acres of land,” Wagner said. “I built a home, which covers the view of Ebey’s Landing.”
Nowadays, Wagner, 94 years old, spends his retirement the way he spent his working years — of service, with a continued deep love and commitment toward education.
Wagner, a graduate of Georgetown University, recently wrote an autobiography, “The Vintner of Georgetown,” in 2015, with all proceeds from the book going to Georgetown students’ financial aid needs.
In the autobiography, Wagner credits the majority of his success primarily to his university, where he majored in economics and minored in history. Wagner wrote that Dr. Carroll Quigley, a named mentor of President Bill Clinton, was one professor in particular that made an impression on him.
Quigley’s tutelage was a turning point in Wagner’s education, teaching him through regular essay assignments and one-on-one meetings that thoughtful reading would be essential to his success in school and in the real world.
“Reading is the key to knowledge,” Wagner said, after explaining that he spends an average of two to three hours a day at the Coupeville Library. “One of the most outstanding things about living here is we have the most wonderful library. … Small is beautiful and big is not better, and that’s why I support the library.”
While Wagner is an avid reader and a fixture at the library, he doesn’t stop at simply cultivating his own continued learning.
Invests in family and friends
Instead, he spends time developing friendships in the community and investing in his own family, some of whom have followed Wagner to the island. His favorite way to help those close to him is by aiding them in achieving their college acceptance letters.
“Because of my friendship with people in this area, either relatives or children, when they needed help for admission to Georgetown University, I cooperated in making it acceptable for admission,” Wagner said.
Indeed, Wagner has made it his mission to assist as many students as possible in making their Georgetown acceptance possible. As a large financial donor, he has instituted five college scholarship funds at the university, including one in Hillary Clinton’s name.
Notably, Wagner spearheaded the $9.5 to $10 million renovation that turned the historic slave quarters at Georgetown into the Robert and Bernice Wagner Alumni House.
Perhaps Wagner’s philanthropy could be, in part, a response to the compassionate acts of Estill Morgan Guinane, Georgetown’s 1945 registrar’s receptionist.
Enters college after WWII
After serving in the Army during World War II, Wagner decided to use the G.I. Bill to attend college. The only problem was that Wagner entered the Army as a 16-year-old boy after working jobs throughout his childhood, trying to help his single mother make ends meet. As a result, he never graduated high school.
Wagner’s wife of 65 years, Bernice, said that he worked all kinds of jobs. For instance, when he was a newsie, he sold newspapers for three cents a piece and got a penny back for each. According to Bernice, he had to help out with the bills, because otherwise his mother would have to move him and his siblings from apartment to apartment in the middle of the night.
Bernice said that, at the university’s registrar’s office, Guinane took pity on Wagner after learning of his childhood.
“She let him in, without a high school diploma, as a probationary student,” Bernice said. “But she told him that if he didn’t cut the mustard he was out.”
Wagner made good on Guinane’s faith in him and graduated from Georgetown with a 3.2 GPA. Now, he spends his energy giving back. Copies of “The Vintner of Georgetown” can be purchased from Georgetown’s Alumni Association to help current and future students with their financial aid.