Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Obituary: Ken Wagner, Sr. / Founded South Side organization to serve special needs people

Sept. 12, 1932 - July 24, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Many Decembers ago, Ken Wagner Sr. brought home a special gift for Christmas.

The gift was a young boy from the nearby Toner Institute, who didn't have anywhere to go for the holiday, welcomed with open arms into the Wagner residence to celebrate with the family of six.

"From there," said his daughter, Peppy Pollock, "we could see he was willing to help anyone."

With his wife of 48 years, Lorraine Wagner, he founded the Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, an organization that serves people with developmental disabilities, one that is today four times bigger than when it started in 1989.

Mr. Wagner died Saturday from complications of an illness at UPMC Shadyside. He was 77.

"He was a wonderful person," said Ms. Wagner. "He was always there for us ... and he was a very unselfish person."

Mr. Wagner was born and raised in Shadyside and graduated from Central Catholic High School before attending Duquesne University, where he received a master's degree in special education.

He then served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and, after teaching at Central Catholic for 13 years, became director of education at the Toner Institute until the facility closed in 1977.

While teaching at Central Catholic, Mr. Wagner started the Appalachia Project by taking a group of his students to Appalachia to help build homes.

Ms. Pollock, of Upper St. Clair, remembers a time when her father picked up a family whose car was broken down, a time when he would dress up as Santa Claus for school, and especially a time when her younger sister Cece was born with a developmental disability.

"I think the ball started rolling in our parents' minds as soon as our sister was born," she said. "They could see the way society was and the way people with special needs needed help."

And so Mr. and Ms. Wagner sold their house and all of their worldly possessions and dedicated more than two decades to building the Emmaus Community.

"Ken was very, very special," said Karen Jacobsen, executive director of the Emmaus Community. "He loved a life he had spent helping others. He was genuine and always made you feel important and cared about what was going on in your life, whether you just met him or were a lifelong friend."

Prior to opening the Emmaus Community, the two spent seven years being certified in L'Arche, an international organization dedicated to the creation of support networks for people with intellectual disabilities.

Modeling the Emmaus Community after L'Arche, the couple lived in a home with four special needs people for 10 years, before opening the first Emmaus house on the South Side in 1994.

Today, the organization is licensed as a developmental program by the state, has four houses for permanent residences and serves hundreds of people in respite care.

"They don't make them like Ken too often," said Ms. Jacobsen. "He breathed life into this organization."

Mr. Wagner also is survived by three other children, Grace Monk of Shantilly, Va., Ken Wagner Jr. of Pittsburgh, and Cece Wagner of Mt. Lebanon; a brother, George Wagner of Bethel Park, and eight grandchildren.

A memorial mass will be held at 10 a.m. today at St. John Capistran Church, Upper St. Clair. Donations may be made to the Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, 2821 Sarah St., Pittsburgh, PA 15203.

No comments: