When John Wagner’s time as college president is remembered, his leadership by example comes to mind first. “If we had a program in the gym, John Wagner would be the first one to take his coat off, roll up his sleeves and start picking up chairs,” shared Rich Carlson, who was chaplain during both of Wagner’s terms as college president. “John didn’t say, ‘Everyone else come help me,’ he’d just start picking up chairs. Everyone would see him and say, ‘Oh, Dr. Wagner’s picking up chairs, we should help him.’ And all of a sudden, everyone would be helping. He has an uncanny way of leading people by example.”
Union College has named the lobby of the Everett Dick Administration Building the Wagner Lobby in honor of Drs. John and Lilya Wagner. John Wagner served as Union’s president from 1986-1991 and 2011-2014, and Lilya served as vice president for institutional advancement from 1986-1991.
“We’re deeply, deeply honored,” said Lilya Wagner. “We truly love Union. It was a privilege to serve such a fine institution, to help it in difficult times and to enjoy the positive times.”
The Wagners’ relationship with Union began in 1980 when John Wagner accepted a call to become academic dean, a position he held until 1983. During this time, he created the personalized degree program, which still exists today. He left to accept a call to become president of Southern College, now Southern Adventist University. Three years later, Union asked the Wagners to return—John to be president and Lilya to be vice president for institutional advancement. The couple accepted and moved back to Nebraska.
In 1986, Union College was facing a financial and enrollment crisis. Much-needed upgrades to the school’s infrastructure had come at a high price, and fewer and fewer students were enrolling each year. “We were millions of dollars in debt,” said Carlson. “Lilya raised money for this school like you cannot believe. She was committed to the goal of paying down the debt. John’s strength and his gift was caring for people from a sacrificial perspective. He would sleep in his van that had over 300,000 miles rather than rent a hotel when he would go out to talk to donors. He would go into a truck stop to brush his teeth and clean up before he went to see a potential donor.”
When the Wagners left Union in 1991, they had led the college in reducing the debt by half. Over the next twenty years, they continued their careers in various fields. Lilya Wagner served as associate director of The Fund Raising School at Indiana University, before working as vice president for development at the National Association for Community Leadership and vice president for Counterpart International, a global development organization in Washington, D.C. She also served as the director of Philanthropic Service for Institutions at the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Over her career, worked as a consultant and trainer in over 80 countries. John Wagner worked for a number of non-profit organizations around the country, then became founding president of a corporate foundation. Later, he became the CEO of Prevent Blindness Indiana.
In 2011, Union asked John Wagner to return as interim president for a year. He agreed, although he was partially retired and serving as assistant administrative pastor at Sligo Adventist Church in Maryland. One year as interim president became three years as full-time president, as Wagner led the college through the completion of the Krueger Center for Science and Mathematics. He served Union as president until 2014.
“John Wagner is one of my greatest spiritual mentors,” said Carlson. “He was known for affirming and encouraging and supporting people. At least once a week, I would walk into my office and there would be a note on my chair. People who worked at Union while he was president still talk about notes from John Wagner on their chair thanking them for something, affirming them for something and telling them how much they were appreciated.”
Union College is deeply grateful for the philanthropic generosity, the sacrificial leadership and the steadfast commitment that the Wagners have shown through the years, and is proud to commemorate their service to the school. In the words of Rich Carlson, “John and Lilya gave so much to Union personally and financially, but more than that, they gave their hearts.”