Life Stories

Mary Williams Wagner: A baby abandoned became a woman fulfilled

CorrespondentAugust 5, 2012 

Tom and Mary Wagner in 2005.

COURTESY OF UNC-TV

  • Mary Williams Wagner Born: June 7, 1928 1945: Graduates from Cary High School 1976: Marries Tom Wagner 1981: Retires and begins formally supporting UNC-TV 1996: Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 2008: Awarded the Producers Circle Award by UNC-TV, only the second recipient of the award Died: July 3, 2012

Her life began like something made for TV.

Perhaps just hours old, her umbilical cord still attached, Mary Wagner was left on the doorstep of a complete stranger. The woman of the house was gardening in her backyard when she heard a car out front. When she went to see who was there, a car was driving off and there was Mary – in a basket.

It was 1928, and Mary was soon adopted by a couple living in Cary. The rest of her life would not prove nearly as dramatic as the beginning. She died last month at the age of 84 from a stroke after a long struggle with Alzeimher’s disease.

This woman, who began life as an abandoned baby, had a lasting impact on those who knew her, particularly when it came to the work she and her husband did for their local public television station, UNC-TV.

Tom Howe, director of the station, called them the most “extraordinary volunteers” he has known in his 40-year career. There has not been a fundraiser that she wasn’t personally involved in for the last several decades.

Mary’s volunteer work was just one of the ways she was able to come into her own later in life. Raised by loving but very traditional parents, Mary was not encouraged to seek education beyond high school, though she would tell her husband of 36 years, Tom Wagner, that law school was something she had always thought about. Instead, Mary was told it was a woman’s role to wed and raise a family.

She tried.

For the first half of her adult life, she made decisions based on her parents’ wishes and societal norms. Perhaps she had a heightened sense of gratitude towards the people who had taken her in. She never felt compelled to look for her birth parents, Tom Wagner said. Or maybe it was just the era she was born into.

Either way, Mary’s mother essentially arranged a marriage for Mary when she finished high school. She wed the son of a family friend, and they had one child, but the marriage did not last. A few years later, as a single mother, she married again, this time looking for a father figure. That did union did not last, either.

‘… because I loved you’

But in her 40s, Mary was finally able to wed a man of her heart’s choosing.

“She told me often: You’re my third marriage, and you’re the only one I married because I loved you,” Tom Wagner said.

She would have a career holding clerical positions for Phillips Petroleum, as well as the government, working as a grants administrator for both the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency. In her heart of hearts, however, her husband thought Mary would have enjoyed a career that involved championing causes.

When the Wagners retired in 1981, they were able to devote their time to all sorts of fulfillment. Some came in the form of road trips – they made four trips cross-country and back, staying in motels along the way, each time traveling different paths.

A keen listener

But most of her retirement was spent doing altruistic deeds. In addition to her work at UNC-TV, Mary spent years as a volunteer mediator for the Chatham County Dispute Settlement Program. She was also on the board of the Chatham County chapter of the Salvation Army.

Retired Judge Stanley Peele worked with the Wagners as mediators and said Mary was quite effective. “No one can be a good mediator unless they know how to listen,” Peele said. “She’s a person that will look you right in the eye.”

Friends and family say she that was perhaps her most notable trait – her ability to listen.

“Mary had a glow about her,” Tom Wagner said. “I don’t know what it was or how it was, but it was almost like she had a sign hanging around her neck saying do you have a problem? Ask me.”

He remembers the time a waitress – a complete stranger – took one look at Mary and said she wanted to sit down and talk to her about a few things, and was that all right? That sort of thing happened regularly, he said.

With Mary, said longtime friend, attorney Karen Davidson, “it was even more than listening. She was more tuned in than normal.”

One of the things Mary was finally able to partake in later in life was flying. As a teen she was a member of the Wake County Civil Air Patrol, but her mother would not allow her flying lessons. After seeing a program on UNC-TV, her husband said flying was something he, too, had always had an interest in. They both joined the Chapel Hill Flying Club, and though she was never able to complete her pilot’s license, the Wagners were able to spend many hours in the air, she as his co-pilot in single-engine planes.

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