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story.lead_photo.caption “There’s this George Strait song that goes ‘There’s a difference between living and living well.’ You could be out there and be alive, but you may not have enough money to treat your hernia or cancer. That’s not living well.” - Charlie Wagener - Photo by Benjamin Krain

When Charlie Wagener joined AARP, it wasn’t just for the plentiful discounts offered to members.

Nothing wrong with discounts, of course, but Wagener and his wife, Diana, also wanted to help. They had seen how her bedbound mother struggled with care in nursing homes in Texas and were motivated to do what they could so others would avoid similar difficulties.

“She encouraged me to get involved,” the 70-year-old Wagener says of Diana. “She said that we needed to make sure that we are advocates for the 50-plus population.”

An AARP member since 1997, Wagener became a volunteer for the nonprofit in 2011. For the past 18 months, he has served as Arkansas’ AARP volunteer president.

And leading AARP’s 310,000 Natural State members and 1,500 volunteers on the group’s mission of “health security, financial resilience and personal fulfillment” — which can be simplified to “health, wealth and self” — suits him just fine.

“It’s phenomenal to have him working for us,” says AARP state director Herb Sanderson. “He adds so much. He’s a thoughtful leader, he’s very good at organization and structure, but he also has a great sense of humor.”

ACADEMICS AND ATHLETICS

Wagener grew up near Washington where he lived with his parents, William and Catherine, and sister, Darlene.

His life revolved around academics and athletics — he earned a whopping 10 letters playing baseball, football and basketball at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.

“Mainly, I studied and played sports,” the still fit and trim Wagener says during an interview at the AARP Little Rock offices, which were being remodeled. “I was really wrapped up in sports. That was directed mainly by my father. He was a very disciplined and structured person. He accepted no excuses.”

Under his father’s watchful eye, Wagener’s options after high school were abundant, as long as they involved attending the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy or the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Wagener accepted an appointment to West Point, in part because he was offered the chance to play football there and also because he had a fascination for the infantry.

“I always wanted to be in the infantry,” he says. “I can’t explain that, but it was a lifelong dream. And when do you have a chance to actually fulfill something you’ve wanted to do your whole life?”

His mother noted that life at a military school should have been a breeze.

“She always said that West Point couldn’t have been so tough because life at home was a lot tougher,” he says, laughing. “I really give credit to my parents. They formed the foundation for me to do the things I’ve done in sports and then going to the academy. They taught me to make sure that you completed anything you undertook and to be accountable for the things you did.”

BASIC TRAINING

Wagener was graduated from West Point in 1970 and commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. He was sent to Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., for infantry officer basic training and also completed his airborne and ranger training there.

“Ranger school was very intense,” he remembers. “It’s a mental, physical and emotional test. It’s perhaps considered to be the hardest training in the Army, but I was young and it was something I knew I wanted to do and get through at all cost.”

He served for 10 years on active duty and another 17 years in the Army Reserves before retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

While stationed in Washington, Wagener met Diana. They married in 1977 and he became a stepfather to Diana’s daughter, Kena. From Washington, Wagener was sent by the Army to Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, and it was while he was stationed there that he decided to leave active duty.

“There’s this George Strait song that goes ‘There’s a difference between living and living well.’ You could be out there and be alive, but you may not have enough money to treat your hernia or cancer. That’s not living well.”

During his time in the Army, Wagener earned a master’s degree in computer science, which he put to good use after he entered civilian life and went to work in data processing for the HEB Grocery firm in Corpus Christi, Texas, where Diana was from. He later took a job with IBM’s sales division in Dallas and worked for them for 18 years.

The alphabet soup of employers continued after he retired from IBM and then spent almost 10 years at software company BEA Systems, which was later bought by Oracle. After 40 years of working, Wagener figured it was time to retire.

In 2008, he and Diana moved to a 15-acre spread in White County, about 10 miles outside of Beebe.

They were not alone.

ANIMAL LOVERS

“We brought with us 15 dogs, four horses and a cat,” he says.

These Wageners are definitely animal lovers.

Most of the dogs were collies, some of which Diana showed competitively (her collies have won American Kennel Club-sanctioned championships in the United States and Canada, Wagener says). Indeed, Diana was attracted to Arkansas after attending dog shows here.

“Being from Corpus Christi, she wanted three things they didn’t have there — trees, rain and hills,” Wagener says.

While he was still in Texas, he spent 15 years volunteering at Riding Unlimited, a therapeutic riding center in the small town of Ponder, where people with disabilities could ride horses in a structured setting. He continued after moving to Arkansas, volunteering at Horses and Hooves in Sherwood.

These days, their animal menagerie has shrunk.

“We’re down to one horse right now, and we’re also down to three dogs and three cats,” he says.

Their love of animals has taken them all the way to Africa, where the Wageners have traveled three times to observe wildlife up close.

A trip to Rwanda in 2015 found them hanging around with gorillas in the Virunga Mountains.

“We went into a rain forest in this range of mountains higher than the Rocky Mountains,” he says. “We were in the same general area as [conservationist and author] Dian Fossey was in. You have a guide, security, trackers and porters and you get to spend one hour with a gorilla family.”

Wagener sounds like a teenager remembering the experience.

“Oh, it was amazing, to be up there within five or six feet of these mountain gorillas.”

He and Diana, who is a substitute teacher in Cabot, will return to Africa this spring to see chimpanzees in Uganda.

When they aren’t traveling to see beasts up close, the Wageners are liable to be found on the trail, hiking to some of America’s highest spots, like Colorado’s Mount Elbert and Wheeler Peak in New Mexico. He’s also in the gym at least four days a week, lifting weights and sweating on an elliptical trainer. On Thursdays, he can be found leading tours at the Clinton Presidential Center.

Then there’s this.

“I am a cancer survivor. At least, I think I’m surviving,” he chuckles. “I was diagnosed about two years ago.”

Wagener was treated for prostate cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where one of his nieces works. Another niece is a doctor in nearby Virginia, so he knew he was in good hands. He has continued his treatment at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

‘A SCARY THING’

“That can be a scary thing for a lot of people,” Wagener says of the costs of facing something like cancer. It’s an issue that he and his fellow AARP volunteers take close to heart.

“The overall concern of all of us here is having affordable health care and making sure that people don’t have too much out-of-pocket cost,” he says.

A recent U.S. News and World Report survey ranked Arkansas last in health care in the United States based on the quality of health care, accessibility of care and the health of the general population.

It’s something that keeps Wagener fired up.

“That’s a motivator for us at AARP to say look, we need to make sure people get the health care they need when they age and that they also have financial security.”

He recalls a popular country tune to drive his point home.

“There’s this George Strait song that goes ‘There’s a difference between living and living well.’ You could be out there and be alive, but you may not have enough money to treat your hernia or cancer. That’s not living well.”

Wagener’s volunteer work with the organization began on the advocacy side.

“We have advocates all over the state,” says Sanderson, the executive director. “We have an advocacy team in the central Arkansas area that is able to attend meetings at the Capitol and he was part of that group. In fact, Charlie became head of the advocacy effort for us.”

Part of Wagener’s duties included overseeing volunteers who communicated with other AARP members about federal and state-level issues that affect them, Sanderson says.

He also served on the state’s AARP executive council, an advisory group made up of volunteers for the state AARP program.

“He was Johnny-on-the-spot,” says Nan Selz, who preceded Wagener as volunteer president. “Every time something was needed, whether it was showing up at the Capitol or addressing volunteers, he really did a wonderful job in that advocacy role, which, of course, made me look good.”

A BIGGER SWATH

As volunteer president, Wagener added seats to the executive council, raising the number of members from eight to 14, pulling in new council members from a bigger swath of the state.

“We had so few positions that most of the members were from central Arkansas,” Selz says. “He added more positions to include most parts of the state. We’re representing the whole state when we go to the Legislature and when we contact our senators and representatives in Congress and when we do programs.”

Growing up in a disciplined household, all those years in the military and later working in the tech industry, Wagener brings a certain structure to his work as president.

“He has added a lot of organization that makes the council functions more smoothly,” says Selz, who remains a council member. “He keeps us apprised of everything going on, whether it’s statewide or in just one community.

AARP is a crucial resource for the over-50 population, Wagener says.

“We provide information on health care issues, we compare legislation, we put on classes, webinars, a whole series of things.”

Included among the group’s services are helping people with driver safety, resources on redesigning living spaces to promote independence, offering free preparation of taxes, a meal donation program and supporting family caregivers.

It’s important work, Wagener says, and he and his fellow AARP volunteers, with all their life experiences, have lots to contribute.

“We’re advocates. We don’t get paid for any of this,” he says. “But we have people with very in-depth knowledge of issues who have been really helpful. We’ve been fortunate to draw on people like that.”

SELF PORTRAIT

Charlie Wagener

PLACE AND DATE OF BIRTH: Washington, June 11, 1947

LAST BOOK I’VE READ: Love, Life and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick

I DRIVE: A 2013 Ford F-150 pickup

MY FIRST PET WAS: A collie named Dusty

THE BIGGEST LESSON I LEARNED IN THE ARMY: To always consider the welfare of your troops. The mission may come first, but the welfare of the troops also has to be considered.

MY FAVORITE TV NETWORK IS: ESPN.

WHAT AARP MEANS TO ME: It means a voice for the 50-plus population that has a positive impact on social change.

ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Leader

Photo by Benjamin Krain
“I am a cancer survivor. At least, I think I’m surviving. I was diagnosed about two years ago.” - Charlie Wagener

Print Headline: As volunteer president of Arkansas’ AARP, Charlie Wagener advocates for the ‘health, wealth and self’ of the state’s plentiful elders.

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