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Wayne Wagner '60
ASC's First Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient
Walking into Wayne W. Wagner's Birkett Mills office in Penn Yan gives the casual visitor enormous insight into the character of the man: successful businessman, avid conservationist and sportsman, and involved community servant. It is this last designation, however, that gives him the most pleasure and in which he takes the greatest pride.
Wagner, who has been tapped to be Alfred State College's first recipient of the newly established Distinguished Alumni Award, is a 1960 graduate of the institution where he majored in business administration. (Wayne attended ASC from 1958-60, though his "official" graduation wouldn't come until 1966.) The award is designed to honor those graduates who have not only succeeded in their chosen careers, but have also succeeded as human beings...contributing to their communities as well as enjoying pleasurable pursuits for their personal fulfillment and growth. Additionally, distinguished alumni award candidates must recognize the intentional learner's role in society, where the intentional learner possesses effective communication and analytical problem-solving skills, is able to work with diverse groups, and can transform knowledge into judgment and action. A closer look at Wayne will reveal why he is the perfect choice to be this award's inaugural recipient.
President and CEO of the successful Birkett Mills, manufacturer of buckwheat products since 1797, Wayne has found time throughout his career to extend himself to others, through activities that he finds rewarding.
"Because," claims Wayne, "work is not what life is about...it's what you do for others that makes life special."
An avid outdoorsman, (Wayne keeps a rustic cabin in the woods on Keuka Lake where he has jerry-rigged a camera to catch the area's wildlife on film) Wayne's office boasts an antique armoire filled with duck decoys which he enjoys collecting. But he is also a hunter (bow and shotgun) who has shot a moose (in Alaska in his youth) as well as many other big game animals. And although he has never wanted to shoot one, he has come eye-to-eye with a grizzly or two!
A talented athlete during his school days, (baseball, basketball, and track) Wayne enjoys continuing his athletic ways, (he's a hole-in-one golfer-at least on Aug. 15, 2001) but even more so when it keeps him connected to youngsters playing the sport. For 25 years, Wayne served as an IAABO (International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, Inc.) official for boys' basketball at the regional high schools in Section V.
"It kept me connected to the young people...and we had some great times. I was even able to present my son with a Sec. V shield during his senior year at Prattsburg for winning the sectional championship," he recalls proudly.
Additionally, he enjoys appearing in the local elementary school each year where he talks about his 1961 Alaskan trip when the fifth graders are studying the Yukon. Wayne and his friend "CJ," inspired by the movie "North to Alaska," hit the road in May 1961 for adventure in the frozen north! While working for the railroad at the base of Mount McKinley, the two young men tried their hand at a number of typical Alaskan activities including hunting moose, salmon fishing, and panning for gold. Wayne even has had an ingot of gold made from the results of his panning activity which he brings along with him when he talks to the students. Additionally, he brings newspaper articles detailing his traveling adventures.
"That was a trip of a lifetime," he says now. "And I'm glad we did it. Everyone should follow their dreams-whether it's travel or schooling or enterprise-even if it means needing to borrow money to make those dreams come true. Life is too short to be wondering ‘what if?'"
That adventure whetted Wayne's appetite for travel, so when Uncle Sam beckoned in 1963, Wayne went off to serve his country in the U.S. Army for two years, in the 24th administrative company, Augsburg, Germany, landing an office job because he was the only man in the company who could type!
"What an experience," he says now. "I visited 19 European countries during that time," he says with some wistfulness.
An advocate of higher education, Wayne served on the Keuka College Board of Trustees for 16 years, four of them as board chair. During his tenure as board chair, Keuka College was successful in its fund raising efforts, completing its first large capital campaign. To show its appreciation of his service, Keuka College awarded Wayne an honorary doctorate at its 2004 commencement.
One of Wayne's joys during his continuing association with the college includes the opportunity to speak to the business students about the realities of the business world which lie behind the theories taught in the classroom. An enthusiastic speaker, Wayne-as well as the students-revels in his non-traditional presentation style.
But perhaps Wayne's most encompassing good works come of his involvement with Lions' Club International. Wayne became a charter member of the Penn Yan club in 1969, and has been active in the club ever since. He was named a Melvin Jones Fellow, the Lions' Club International's highest honor, recognizing commitment to humanitarian service, and Lion of the Year. Wayne also received the Lions' Outstanding Service Award, the Robert Uplinger Distinguished Service Award (the highest award available in Multiple District 20 given to those who embody the ideals, ethics, and objects of Lionism); and the Distinguished Leadership Achievement Award (given to the Lion who exemplifies the qualities of leadership and service within his club and district). Wayne was honored to serve as Lions' District Governor (20 E2), 2004-05.
"My years of service are a direct outgrowth of my upbringing," says Wayne. "My father is a charter member of the Cohocton Lions Club, my grandfather was a Mason, and I served as a little league coach and a scout leader. When I came to Penn Yan, I continued to satisfy my desire to serve my adopted community.
The "minor" footnote to this story is Wayne's career. Early on, he managed Alderney Dairy Co. in his native Cohocton until a proposed transfer to New Jersey. Casting about for an alternative to the move, he landed an interview with The Birkett Mills in Penn Yan.
Being the shrewd negotiator he was, Wayne managed a salary equivalent to his New Jersey offer and, following his Friday interview, began working that Monday as an accountant for The Birkett Mills. Wayne moved through the ranks at the Mill, from accountant to controller to treasurer. The eventual plan was for Wayne to take over the reins of the business following the retirements (in succession) of the two senior officers. Because life does not always follow the plans mere mortals make, and due to an untimely death in the organization, Wayne found himself catapulted from interim president to president of the company in 1974 at the tender age of 33. So Wayne W. Wagner, native of Cohocton, and Alfred State College graduate, began the course of his career that he follows to this day.
Wayne credits much of his success to his education at Alfred State College.
"Alfred State had one of the best-rounded programs for business administration in the area," Wayne recalls. "We were taught the same courses that the four-year institutions were teaching. And the force behind this program was E. J. Brown who taught cost accounting and headed the business division."
All of Wayne's memories of his time at ASC are fond...he lived in the TG house and took all of his meals there during his freshman year. He sang in Cappy's concert choir as first tenor, though he was planning to audition as a baritone, and he tended bar at the Beacon (a local bar-Alfred was a dry town in those days and students needed to go beyond the town limits to imbibe!).
And so, one can think that Wayne's life has come full circle...the school that played a role in his path to professional as well as personal success honored him as the first recipient of the ASC Distinguished Alumni Award, which was presented to Wayne during the annual President's Gala in October 2005.
It's a no-brainer: Wayne personifies the ASC notion of a distinguished alumnus.