RIP to SDSU’s Robert Wagner

Robert Wagner taught thousands of South Dakota State University students before he guided the state’s largest university for more than a decade.

Wagner, a preacher, teacher and inspiring leader, died Monday. He was 78. He served as SDSU’s president from 1985-1997.

Wagner was an acclaimed sociology professor whose class Marriage 250 packed The Rotunda, especially when he showed films of marital relations. It was an uncomfortable subject in the 1970s, sure to spark giggles and possibly some protest.

But Wagner, using his characteristic humor and self-mocking style, delighted 1,200 students per semester. He was repeatedly named the top professor in his college.

Wagner briefly served as chief administrator at Dakota State University in Madison before he was called back to SDSU to replace Ray Hoops, who served less than a year as the university president.

According to his biography from the SDSU website, “He held a doctorate from South Dakota State University, had been a teacher and administrator here and throughout the regental system.  

“Wagner led the school from a controversial era into a decidedly more tranquil time.  His quiet attention to the internal workings of the college, rather than external politics, worked well and resulted in a great deal of growth.  Despite constant budget problems under his administration, the campus expanded by more than 380,000 square feet. 

“Twenty-two faculty were added, and technology became a major factor in the university.  The College of Education and Counseling was formed, and many buildings were built, including Berg and Bailey Apartments, the Animal Disease Research, and the Northern Plains Biostress Laboratory.”

I took a class from Wagner and covered him years later when he was the president. A friendly, witty man, he enjoyed the give-and-take with the media and with students.

I recall him attending parties off campus to get to know students better. He was a tall, gangling man with a quick smile and a clever wit.

His wife, Mary, was also an SDSU staffer as well as a member of the Brookings school board and a Republican legislator for 12 years. She died in 2004. I knew Mary and liked her. She was sharp and caring and had an easy way with college kids, even when she stopped by their messy houses while campaigning door-to-door.

The Wagners retired to the Black Hills and Dr. Wagner filled in as a pastor at some area churches from time to time, a return to his first career.

In 2010, SDSU renamed its Nursing, Family and Consumer Sciences, and Arts and Sciences building in honor of the Wagners.  The South Dakota Board of Regents approved the name change.

Current President David Chicoine noted in his comments the Wagners’ long affiliation with the university and with education in South Dakota, according to an SDSU press release.

“The Wagners are remembered with great admiration by alumni, faculty and staff across many fields,” Chicoine said in the release. “It is fitting that their name will be connected to a building that houses and supports many academic disciplines.”

The last time I saw Dr. Wagner, we were both at a Jackrabbits men’s basketball game and we shared our concern with the team that year. I liked and respected Dr. Wagner and I think tens of thousands of SDSU grads, students and staff share that view.

Survivors include a son, Christopher Wagner, Geneva, Switzerland; a daughter, Andrea Radke, Irene; four grandchildren; his stepmother, Ann Wagner, Sioux Falls; and three brothers, Peter Wagner, Sibley, Iowa, John Wagner, Sioux Falls, and Tom Wagner, Omaha, Neb.

Memorial services will be at 2 p.m. Jan. 25 at Calvary Cathedral in Sioux Falls with Bishop John T. Tarrant officiating.

A second memorial services will be at 2 p.m. Jan. 27, at Emmanuel Church in Rapid City with Bishop John T. Tarrant officiating.

A Robert T. and Mary K. Wagner memorial scholarship fund has been established at South Dakota State University in Brookings.