In death, Wagner enriches life in Danville

In death, Wagner enriches life in Danville

DANVILLE — Robert E. Wagner lived a quiet, unassuming life.

He died just as quietly on April 4, 2014, at the age of 89 — not wanting a funeral, visitation or newspaper obituary, just a simple burial next to the graves of his parents and only sibling.

"He never lived fancy," Kenny Broderick recalled of his friend. "He never had a fancy house or drove fancy cars. He could have gone out and bought himself a new Cadillac, even a Rolls Royce. But he didn't care about that. He was content sitting in his old, wooden rocker listening to the radio or watching the news."

Mr. Wagner also quietly accumulated just shy of $1 million in his lifetime, thanks to his simple lifestyle, and bequeathed his estate equally among six local entities that support education, the arts and youth programs.

They include: the Danville Area Community College, Danville Public School, Danville Public Library and the Danville Symphony Orchestra foundations, the Danville Family YMCA and the Vermilion County Conservation District.

"These are very rare occurrences, and they're transformational when they happen," said Danville schools Foundation Executive Director Bob Richard, who estimated each group will receive around $166,000.

"That's one of the largest gifts our foundation has ever received," continued Richard, who was stunned by the unexpected gift. "It's one of those things where you're so happy to get it, but you wish you could have thanked the person."

Tracy Wahlfeldt, the DACC Foundation's executive director, agreed.

"We're just so grateful," she said after the bequest was announced Wednesday. "I just wish he would have known how great of an impact he's going to have on students' lives."

No one on the receiving end knew Mr. Wagner personally. Broderick, his longtime neighbor in the Vermilion Heights, was one of the few who did.

Mr. Wagner lived in the 500 block of Warrington Avenue his entire life. He graduated from Danville High School in 1943, and joined the U.S. Army later that June.

A staff sergeant, he served as a waist gunner on a B24 with the 14th and 7th Air Forces in the Pacific Theater during World War II. During his service, he was involved in the China Air Offensive, Japan Campaign. By the time he was honorably discharged in November 1945, he had been awarded two Bronze stars, the Air Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.

"He was interesting to talk to," said Broderick, who met Mr. Wagner when he moved in next door in 1973. "He had a lot of neat stories about World War II. He loved China. He thought the people over there were the greatest. They showed a lot of respect for the U.S. military back then."

Broderick said Mr. Wagner worked for Bohn Aluminum for 19 years and retired in the late 1980s. He said he likely had another job prior, but he only talked about Bohn.

Broderick also said Mr. Wagner never married. He cared for his mother and then his brother, who was diabetic, until their deaths.

Mr. Wagner was an avid reader, and he loved the outdoors.

"He loved to go out to the parks — Kickapoo and Forest Glen," recalled Broderick, who would take him when he could no longer drive. "Nature was a big thing for him. He liked looking for the deer and the eagles. In his younger days, he liked to go fishing."

Broderick said health issues forced Mr. Wagner to move to a nursing home the last two or three years of his life.

"He didn't like the idea of being in a nursing home," Broderick said. "He was always independent. But he accepted it."

Wahlfeldt said Mr. Wagner's donation to the college will fund scholarships. His donation to the school district foundation will be used to provide new and innovative educational opportunities to students, Richard said.

Ken Konsis, the conservation's executive director, said Mr. Wagner's gift will go toward the Kennekuk Environmental Education Center. The conservation district is currently raising funds to complete Phases II and III of the project.

"So receiving this gift couldn't have come at a better time," he said.

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