One for the history books
By Gwendolynne Larson, Assistant Director of Marketing and Media Relations
When Homecoming 2011 rolled around in October, it had been 20 years since Ruth Wagner had visited her alma mater. But nothing was going to keep the 92-year-old Wichita woman from celebrating her 70th anniversary of graduation from Kansas State Teachers College.
Wagner didn’t find a reunion with fellow classmates; she was the only member of the Class of ‘41 to attend the Alumni Awards Banquet on Oct. 14. Instead, she earned a standing ovation from approximately 150 fellow alumni and friends and was presented a 70-year alumni medallion by Interim President H. Edward Flentje.
Before retiring in 1982, Wagner spent 25 years putting to use the education degree she earned in 1941. Despite taking breaks during her career to raise her children, Wagner found herself an eyewitness to history and social change.
Wagner’s first position was teaching first through fourth grades in a two-room schoolhouse in Paxico, Kan. At the beginning of her second semester — just weeks after Pearl Harbor — the school’s principal, who also taught grades five through eight, was drafted, and Wagner found herself teaching 18 students and serving as principal.
A move to Geneseo High School led Wagner to marriage. She was teaching world history and world geography along with sponsoring the sophomore class and Glee Club when she met fellow teacher Samuel Earl Wagner. He, too, was drafted, and the couple married in 1944 while he was serving in the U.S. Navy.
Meanwhile, Wagner was answering the call on the homefront.
“They were asking for teachers,” she recalled.
After the war, the couple started their family, eventually having three children — Donald, Nancy and David. Wagner saw her career go through fits and starts as she raised the children and the family moved to follow Samuel’s coaching and teaching positions.
During one teaching stint, Wagner found herself face to face with Jim Crow. She and some parents took the class on a field trip that included a trip to a theater.
“I had three colored kids,” Wagner recalled. “So (the theater staff) told me, ‘Well, they’ll have to sit up in the balcony.’ I said, ‘No way. They are children the same as the other children. Either they sit down with me or we will find someplace else to go.’”
“They sat with me,” she said, noting that the other students were upset that their classmates were being segregated.
Looking back on her career, Wagner said she most enjoyed teaching sixth grade.
“I could communicate with them, and they could help me plan what they wanted to do and they could carry it out,” she recalled.
“Of course, some of them were ornery,” she added with a smile.
Wagner retains fond memories of her time at Kansas State Teachers College. In those days, the community celebrated milestones in students’ lives. For instance, she said, students who had turned 21 and earned the right to vote were invited to a dinner.
A professor escorted Wagner to the dinner.
“And William Allen White sat at our table, right across from me. That enhanced it for me.”
And she and her classmates left their legacy for future students.
“We had some protests,” she recalled. “We wanted a new library. The library was terrible. We wrote up skits where you would reach through a wall to get a book.”
In 1951, 10 years after Wagner graduated, construction of the new William Allen White Library was completed. The library continues to serve students today.