Jack Wagner had two interests growing up in the Beechview section of Pittsburgh: playing football and shooting pool. In fact, he applied himself more to his duties as guard and linebacker than his studies at South Hills High School.
“I was never really a good student,” he said, “more because of not putting the time and attention into it than because of anything else.”
On the surface, he may have seemed a long shot to become an education advocate—no less auditor general of Pennsylvania—but the 1974 IUP graduate went on to be both. And, he’s quick to credit his time at IUP for fitting him with skills he still uses today, or, as he says, for teaching him “how to think.”
Wagner didn’t set out to work in state government; he took a scenic route.
While many of his South Hills classmates went straight to college, Wagner lacked the finances. His father, Robert, worked in sales during the day and tended bar at night; his mother, Laverne, worked as a secretary, among other jobs.
After high school, Wagner got a job as a mail boy at Duquesne Light, where he later moved up to meter reader, then draftsman. Meantime, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and, as a single young man who wasn’t in college, he knew the draft was inevitable.
In August 1966, at age eighteen, a proactive Wagner and four of his buddies joined the U.S. Marine Corps. “I just wanted, in all frankness, to meet my obligation of military service and get on with my life,” he said.
But he was also planning. Wagner knew that joining the military would qualify him for the GI Bill, which would help him pay for college down the road.
Seven months after he enlisted, Wagner went to Vietnam. That spring, sent to drive enemy troops from the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam, Wagner’s squad got caught in an ambush. That and the ensuing battle left seven of the twelve dead; Wagner was one of three wounded.
Transported to Japan, then South Philadelphia, Wagner underwent multiple operations to remove shrapnel and repair his legs and foot, followed by months of rehabilitation. At age twenty, he was medically discharged from the Marines and later received the Purple Heart.
Back to work at Duquesne Light, a more serious Wagner watched as coworkers with college degrees moved up through the organization.
“You put two and two together and say to yourself, ‘I better get a college degree, or I’m not going to make much of my life,’” he said.
He was taking night classes at Point Park College in downtown Pittsburgh when he read about a new program at IUP called Safety Management, now known as Safety Sciences.
It was around 1970, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act was about to be passed at the federal level. IUP was one of the first schools in the nation to establish an undergraduate degree program in safety. Wagner applied and was accepted—at the Kittanning branch, now called IUP at Northpointe.
“The reason I was accepted at the Kittanning branch versus the main campus was because my grades weren’t that good,” he said. “So I went to Kittanning, and that was a great experience.”
A year later, on the main campus, Wagner met some fellow Safety Management majors who worked part time as paramedics at Citizens’ Ambulance Service.
“It was right in line with my major,” he said. So he applied.
Within a month, Wagner was answering ambulance calls from all over Indiana County. He recalls being dispatched to a manufacturing plant where a man was killed on the job.
“Obviously, it was a tragedy for that man and his family, but I saw what went wrong there,” he said. “And here I am majoring in safety, so I could put the pieces together as to what should not have happened and how this man’s life could have been saved.”
Often, he shared his paramedic experiences in class, both at IUP and at Admiral Peary Area Vocational Technical School in Ebensburg, where he taught emergency-responder courses in the evenings.
Starting college at twenty-three and nicknamed “the old man” by his roommates at Carriage House and Essex House, Wagner wasted no time at IUP. He took classes each summer and graduated in three years. The rigorous safety curriculum—which included five internships in the senior year—had its rewards.
“When you graduated, there were three or four potential jobs out there for you,” Wagner said.
He took a job as a loss-control engineer at CNA Insurance in Pittsburgh, where he worked with clients in such industries as steel, mining, and trucking to reduce their accident rates. Four years later, he moved to Chicago to work as a regional manager, then national accounts manager, at CNA’s home office.
After six years with the company, Wagner came back to Pittsburgh to manage a restaurant his older brothers, Bob and Pete, had opened. Two life-changing events resulted: He met his future wife, Nancy, a waitress and bartender at the restaurant, and he got involved in the community.
When chlordane, a potentially cancer-causing insecticide, got into the water system, Wagner’s safety management background came bubbling to the surface. Beechview’s water supply was shut down for two weeks, and residents were told to use neighborhood water buffaloes or buy their own water.
“That was 1980,” Wagner said. “Water wasn’t sold like it is today. And when you live without water in your home or you have a business—and I was running a restaurant then—that’s a serious problem.”
Wagner organized a community meeting and invited all of Pittsburgh’s elected officials. None showed. That evening, he decided to run for office.
“It was, in many ways, reactionary,” he said, “and some people say that’s the best reason to get involved with government.”
In his first bid for city council, Wagner lost. But after getting a taste of the competition, he ran again and took office in 1984.
It was a time of transition for Pittsburgh: The steel industry was falling apart at the same time many of downtown’s signature skyscrapers—PPG Place, Oxford Centre, Fifth Avenue Place—were going up as part of the Renaissance II building boom.
In his ten years on council—the last four as president—Wagner counts among major achievements the formation of a public-private partnership that kept the Pirates in Pittsburgh and the privatization of the zoo, aviary, Phipps Conservatory, and other attractions.
Rather than running for reelection in 1993, Wagner ran for mayor. After losing a heated race, he found himself out of an office. “I had my heart and soul set on doing some things I really wanted to do for Pittsburgh. And I lost,” he said.
Wagner was preparing to reenter the private sector, even interviewing for jobs, when Eugene Scanlon, the senator from Wagner’s district, died in office in March 1994.
Wagner decided to run for the seat and won. Over the next ten years, he helped implement safety-related measures that included increased smoke detectors and fire-suppression systems in college dormitories, electronic signs showing motorists their speed in construction zones, and expanded cell-phone coverage along interstate highways.
He also backed increased funding for public education and initiatives such as the HOPE Scholarship Program, which—had it been adopted—would have helped pay tuition for students maintaining a certain grade-point average.
In 2002, Auditor General Bob Casey was running for governor and asked Wagner to run alongside him for lieutenant governor. Both lost in the Democratic primary.
Soon after, as Casey neared the end of his two-term limit, Wagner entered the race to be the state’s top fiscal watchdog and won.
It was a natural fit, he said. “I think I’ve always been fiscally responsible and sensitive to especially the financial issues of government.”
Though best known for monitoring the spending of public entities such as the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency and Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, the Department of the Auditor General also audits performance.
Insufficient information on the list of registered sex offenders under Megan’s Law, delays in the rollout of the E-911 cell-phone tracking system, and missed restaurant inspections are all the business of the auditor general. Auditing the safety plans of Pennsylvania’s school districts is also high on Wagner’s agenda.
Needless to say, his Safety Management degree hasn’t gathered dust. “We can basically look at any aspect of state government as it relates to safety,” he said from his Harrisburg office.
Somewhere within the walls of Admiral Peary, more than thirty years ago, Wagner came across what he recalls as a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Education is not fulfillment, utilization of knowledge is.”
They are words he has lived by. “If you can take your experiences, your education, your ability to communicate with others, and put it all together, you can really have a positive impact,” he said.
With two teenage children, Luke and Sara, Wagner has concerns about the growing high school dropout rate and how it could affect the country’s future.
“The most important thing a young person can do is go to school,” he said. “If I can do it, someone else can.”
Wagner’s education has, in fact, come full circle. He received the IUP Distinguished Alumni Award in 1994, served four years on the IUP Alumni Association Board of Directors, and now audits the university.
As for the future, the sixty-year-old Wagner hopes to be reelected in November to a second term as auditor general. After that, he said, he’ll look into running for other offices. As he puts it, “I take it one election at a time.”
Elaine Jacobs Smith ’93 is the web editor at IUP.