UWG Mourns the Passing of Donald R. Wagner
Beloved professor remembered for significant contributions to students and higher education
Dr. Donald R. Wagner, 71, the founding dean of the Honors College and professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of West Georgia, died Oct. 4 after a lengthy but valiant battle with cancer. He was fondly remembered on Oct. 12 by family, friends and colleagues at his memorial service.
“He was a mentor to countless students and to many faculty and staff as well,” said Dr. Beheruz N. Sethna, president of UWG. “He was not only my colleague – he was my friend and will be sorely missed. The University of West Georgia is poorer without him.”
Dr. Wagner inspired and touched the lives of thousands of students throughout his career at UWG. They gravitated to him because he ignited and fanned the flames of their potential and because of his witty and somewhat cheeky disposition.
He was the embodiment of the archetypal professor and cut an imposing figure—with white hair, a philosopher’s beard, and an always composed, military-born posture. No one would have looked twice if he entered the room wearing an ancient Greek cloak and holding a scroll. The sheer volume of books, magazines and papers which overtook his office was legendary and the subject of much good natured ribbing from students and colleagues alike.
“Singularly, more than anyone else, I think of Dr. Wagner as synonymous with my UWG experience,” said Justin Barlow, former student and colleague. “I have not forgotten to this day the benefits I gained by knowing the man. His efforts allowed me to stretch myself. He educated me not just about government but about life in more ways than I can explain.”
“It saddens me to think that future West Georgia students will not have the privilege of having Dr. Wagner as a mentor,” adds former student Yong Suh.
After proudly serving his country in the Air Force as an analyst, Professor Wagner earned his Bachelor’s degree at University of Washington and his Master’s and Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Georgia—passing both “with distinction.” He then began his 36-year academic career as an associate professor of political science at then West Georgia College in 1975.
He also served as co-director (with Dr. Melvin Steely, Professor Emeritus of the History Department) of the Georgia Political Heritage Project (GPHP). Together, they taped a series of structured interviews or conversations with a number of influential and important Georgia political figures such as Herman Talmadge, Zell Miller, Supreme Court Justice George T. Smith, Jack Flynt and others. The GPHP is the most extensive oral history project of its kind in the Southeastern United States. Dr. Steely continues this work today.
One of Dr. Wagner’s most significant contributions to the university was his work with the Honors Program, which he grew into the first—and for many years only—Honors College in the University System of Georgia. Honors students benefit from a distinctive curriculum designed to offer more opportunities for research in preparation for graduate or professional school.
With President Sethna, he instituted the Advanced Academy, where selected high school juniors and seniors can complete their last two years of high school and the first two years of college concurrently. Its graduates have gone on to notable academic and professional success. For instance, just this past May, a former Academy student graduated from the Medical College of Georgia at the age of 21.
Dr. Wagner’s impact was without borders. A 10-year-old boy in China had read of the Advanced Academy and called Dr. Wagner to inquire about admittance. As luck would have it, Dr. Wagner had a trip planned to Asia and was able to meet with the boy and his father at the airport in Korea. After interviewing the boy, the professor agreed he was ready to be a part of the Academy. That student has since graduated UWG and, though still a minor, he is now attending graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Dr. Wagner was instrumental in the development of the distance education program, as well as UWG’s satellite campuses in Newnan and Douglasville. He was awarded the first Distance Education Leadership Award given by the Distance Learning Administration Conference and the Online Journal of Distance Education Administration.
Professor Wagner also had a considerable talent for inspiring and influencing others. His passion for education, student success and academic excellence was infectious. For example, on a flight home from Seattle, he struck up a conversation with a stranger which resulted in a $10,000 donation to the Advanced Academy.
Dr. Wagner was also very active in professional societies and scholastic honoraries, such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Political Science Association. He chaired or held leadership roles on numerous committees for the University, University System of Georgia and the AAUP. He was a highly sought after thought partner by peers, elected officials, and academic leaders and often wrote or framed legislation, policies and processes to improve higher education.
During his lifetime, Dr, Wagner was recognized with numerous awards from organizations, peers and students including Honors Teacher of the Year and SGA Professor of the Year. He also won state and national AAUP awards such as the Akin Award and the William S. Tacey Award.
Dr. Sethna praised the professor’s extraordinary contributions. “Dr. Wagner has been an icon at UWG, in the University System of Georgia and at the national level in the AAUP. He has been a most beloved and respected faculty member at UWG, the founding Dean of the Honors College, and our students named the Honors Professor of the Year Award after him. He has played a major role in the state and national AAUP, and headed a system-wide committee to create the USG's enormously successful Alternative Dispute Resolution system. I could not thank him enough.”
The University of West Georgia established the Dr. Donald R. Wagner Endowed Scholarship to honor Dr. Wagner for his advocacy in education over the past 36 years at UWG. The scholarship benefits UWG Advanced Academy students and will be awarded annually to a UWG student by a scholarship committee within the Honors College.
The award-winning and much beloved professor leaves behind a legacy of excellence, starting with his commitment to his students, school and profession. Senior Vice Chancellor for External Affairs Thomas Daniel expressed it best: “He was a hero among us.”
Anyone wishing to send condolences to the Wagner family may do so via email@example.com. Those wishing to honor Don by helping students are encouraged to consider making a contribution the Dr. Donald R. Wagner Endowed Scholarship. Please contact the Office of Development and Alumni Relations for more information at 678-839-6582.
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