Cover Story: Service and Mission—2020/2021 the Year of First Responders and Veterans

Richard Wagner ’70

Commitment to Community

By Lois Elfman

When Richard P. Wagner looks back on his time as a student at St. Francis College, he has a sense of appreciation for the respect shown to immigrants and the children of immigrants. His father was from Germany and his mother, while born in the U.S., was raised in a Polish household. Educated at Catholic schools since childhood, he recalls a nun asking him to recite Our Father, but he only knew it in Polish.
“I quickly learned how to say Our Father in English,” says Wagner.

Wagner was a bit older than the average freshman when he arrived at St. Francis. It was the 1960s and there was a draft. Instead of waiting to be called, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving from 1963–66. He was with the Second Marine Division, which was based out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and served the Mediterranean area in Europe.

“I got to go to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and France,” he says. “My last year and a half, they transferred me to the supply center…in Albany, Georgia.”

When his military service was done, college quickly followed. “I got out of the Marine Corps on a Thursday and I started classes on Monday,” he says. Schooled at Franciscan schools since the fourth grade, SFC was a good fit for him. The small class size was also a significant reason for picking the college.

There were some tensions related to the Vietnam War, and veterans didn’t get the respect they do today, but the quality of his professors offset those issues. “Availability to get some extra instruction was good,” says Wagner.

Military veterans found each other and formed their own supportive group. They even had a representative from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs come to the school and show them how to fill out the paperwork to get their GI Bill benefits (educational assistance for service members and veterans).

An accounting major, Wagner emotionally recalls a public speaking class in which he relayed a friend’s story about serving in Vietnam. “He told me a story about a mission he went on,” says Wagner. “The professor wanted us to tell a story in front of the class, so I relayed what this guy had told me. When I finished, half the class stood up and clapped.”

He had been born and raised in Brooklyn, but by the time Wagner was a college student, his family had moved to New Jersey, so he worked full-time and lived on his own in Brooklyn during his college days.

After graduation, Wagner embarked on a career that called upon his accounting degree, but varied from what one normally envisions of an accountant. He worked as an auditor—first at Peat Marwick (now KPMG, a large accounting firm), then for a mining company, AMAX, which involved a lot of traveling. He worked in cash management for BorgWarner (automotive industry) and then at Hoffman-LaRoche (healthcare company) in treasury services.

Living in Edison, New Jersey since 1973, Wagner joined the Edison First Aid and Rescue Squad, a non-profit ambulance group made up of volunteers, in 1986. He became an EMT and held several officer positions within the organization, including serving as treasurer for nearly 20 years. His last ambulance call was in 2003, but he remains involved by going in and helping keep the ambulances equipped and running properly.

“It was neighbors helping neighbors,” says Wagner. “Once I got involved, it was one of the most rewarding activities I ever did.”

An active life member, during the COVID-19 pandemic he’s still volunteered, learning and adhering to all the new protocols.

“It was a challenge,” says Wagner, who retired from the business world in 2007. “I help out wherever it’s needed. Maintaining the equipment, maintaining the building. Making sure they have equipment and supplies. The biggest challenge right now is getting people to volunteer.”

Driving at night isn’t possible, so he isn’t able to visit the SFC campus for alumni events, but his connection to the college endures. He’d be happy to speak to current St. Francis students studying accounting.

“I feel grateful that I was able to go there and get an education,” Wagner says. “It opened up a lot of opportunities for me. I don’t know what I would have been doing if I hadn’t gone to college.”

“[Serving in the ambulance corps] was neighbors helping neighbors,” says Wagner. “Once I got involved, it was one of the most rewarding activities I ever did.”