Local construction giant passes away

Published 11:20 am Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Wagner family has been a fixture in construction throughout the area. John, center, died Wednesday. From left: Tim Wagner, Terry Wagner, John E. Wagner, Matt Wagner, and Brendhan Wagner. -- Herald file photo

CEO built legacy in Austin

John Wagner

For John Wagner, there was nothing more beautiful than taking a set of plans, watching a structure come out of the ground and seeing it to fruition. He did that hundreds if not thousands of times throughout his life, leaving an indelible mark on Austin in the process.

John Edward Wagner, Wagner Construction Co. President and CEO, passed away yesterday after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 84.

Son of Wagner Construction founder Nicholas Wagner, John, along with his brother, David, took over the company when Nicholas died in 1962 and literally built much of Austin. The general contracting company, founded exactly 100 years ago, built Austin schools like Neveln, Shaw, Sumner, Pacelli and Gerard, churches such as Queen of Angels, First Baptist, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and additions at St. Augustine, and countless other historical landmarks and large projects like the Paramount Theatre, the Mower County Government Center, Hy-Vee Foods, Oak Park Mall, Shopko, the Town Center, and many construction projects at Hormel Foods Corp.

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“It’s such a legacy,” said John’s son, Brendhan Wagner, who now runs Wagner Construction with his brother, Matthew, and his cousins, Tim and Terry. “Not many people have the opportunity to have so many visual memories of their father and their family like the Wagners do.”

Matthew, who is also the company’s secretary, said he learned the business from his father.

“I consider it an honor that I was able to work with him,” he said.

An ad for Wagner Construction that ran in the Sept. 14, 1929 edition of the Austin Daily Herald. Founded in 1913, the general contracting company is also celebrating 100 years of business this year. -- Photo provided

After John’s father died in 1962, his brother, Joseph, left the company to found his own Austin-based construction business, The Joseph Company. Joseph died in January 2011 and David died in 2007, but between the two companies, three brothers, and five decades of work, Brendhan said, it’s hard to walk more than a block in Austin without seeing something Wagner-built.

“It’s amazing,” Brendhan said.

Everyone in construction knew John and his work, according to Kevin Schammel, president and owner of Schammel Electric in Austin.

“It’s hard to quantify all the projects he’s worked on or had something to do with,” he said.

Schammel said he first met John through his father, Jerry, who used to work with him. Schammel Electric has been around for about 50 years, and has worked with Wagner Construction more than a few times during that span. Schammel came to know John pretty well.

Schammel remembers John as a hard-working, diligent person, though he can also recount a number of funny stories.

“He would come off sometimes kind of rough, but you knew where he was coming from,” he said. “I always enjoyed working with him.”

While most of Austin will remember John for construction, Brendhan said, it was kindness he remembers most. Despite a gruff exterior, Brendhan said, he was a teddy bear at heart.

“He would do anything for anybody,” he said. “Even with all his work, the thing I’m most proud of is his caring nature. There were so many people who would come to me and say how he helped them out.”

Like those he helped with their sobriety.

Wagner Construction workers make progress at Woodson Kindergarten Center early this year. -- Herald file photo

John, a proud recovered alcoholic, sober for 47 years, never shied away from the subject, something Brendhan remembers fondly.

“I would say, ‘Dad, one of those As is anonymous,” Brendhan said. “He would say, ‘Not for me. I can’t teach people if it’s anonymous.’”

John remained active with Wagner Construction until his illness. He remained dignified until the very end, Brendhan said, and when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, his father told him something he will never forget.

“When he got the news and we knew it was terminal, I said, ‘dad, what do you think?’ He said, ‘Rather me than you,’ because he knew he had a wonderful life. … He was just a very selfless person.”

John’s wake is 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 18, at Mayer Funeral Home, with visitation from 5 to 8 p.m., and the funeral mass is 2 p.m. on Sunday, at Queen of Angels Catholic Church, with another visitation from 1 to 2 p.m.

—Kevin Coss contributed to this report.



•Neveln School and renovations
•Shaw Elementary School and gym
•Sumner Elementary School and renovations
•St. Edwards’ Apple Lane Child Care Center
•Pacelli Catholic School
•Queen of Angels School
•Woodson Kindergarten Center expansion of 2012
•Gerard School, gym and dorms
•Riverland renovation of 1991


•Queen of Angels
•First Baptist Church
•St. Olaf’s narthex
•St. Augustine’s steeple
•St. Augustine addition
•Church of Latter Day Saints

Other projects

•Paramount Theatre
•International Paper
•Hormel research and development
•Various Hormel projects
•Tempo Mall (APC)
•Oak Park Mall
•Cedar Valley Services
•Hy-Vee Foods and gas station
•Piggly Wiggly
•Austin Utilities
•Brick Furniture
•Town Center
•Mower County Government Center
•Leighton-Meany-Cotter & Enger law firm
•Wagner building
•St. Olaf Hospital
•Jay C. Hormel home (now Gerard Academy)
•YMCA super gym
•Plager building (at the Mower County fairgrounds)
•Three livestock buildings at the Mower County Fairgrounds
•Historical Society building
•Municipal swimming pool
•National Guard armory