In Memoriam: Robert Wagner, Professor Emeritus and "Daddy Wags" to Generations of Students

He retired in 1989 after 40 years as a teacher and mentor.
June 25, 2013

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Robert E. "Bob" Wagner, who taught chemical engineering at WPI for 40 years and touched thousands of lives through his award-winning teaching, his advising and mentorship, and his passion for the outdoors, died June 15, 2013, at his home in Shrewsbury, Mass. He was 92.

"Bob was a teacher who was way ahead of his time," said David DiBiasio, head of WPI's Chemical Engineering Department. "He figured out through experience and hard work how to engage nearly every student, no matter what their learning style, and how to get them to reach the high standards he set for them. What I recall most were his boundless energy, his complete dedication to teaching, and his incredible passion for student learning. I consider myself very lucky and honored to have spent my early years as a faculty member with Bob in the department."

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Born and raised in Baltimore, Md., he attended high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and then enrolled at Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) to study chemical engineering. He left school in 1943 to enroll in the U.S. Army and served in the South Pacific as a 1st Lieutenant with the 313th Bombardment Wing, part of the Twentieth Air Force, which was set up under the command of General Hap Arnold to operate the new B-29 Superfortress bombers. Stationed on Tinian in the Mariana Islands as a flight engineering officer on a lead B-29 crew, he flew bombing runs over Japan and Korea, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and five air medals.

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After the war, Wagner returned to Drexel, where he completed his BS in 1946 and an MS in chemical engineering 1948. He joined the WPI faculty in 1949, taking a brief break to earn a PhD in chemical engineering from Princeton University in 1955. From the beginning of his WPI career, he earned a reputation as a master teacher who went beyond the call of duty to serve as an advisor, mentor, and friend to countless students. After he retired in 1989, he and his wife, Ruth, planned a cross-country trip. Before he left, he called some of his former students and ended up being welcomed into the homes of over 40 alumni from coast to coast. "It's funny," he told the WPI Journal, "but I remembered each of their voices the moment I heard it on the phone—even if I hadn't spoken to them since class 30 years ago."

Wagner's almost paternal concern for his students was reflected in his nickname, "Daddy Wags." The name was born in the 1960s during one of Wagner's impromptu lectures on the dangers of drug use. One student, inspired by the message, called out, "You're right on, Daddy Wags." The name stuck, and Wagner proudly displayed it on a nameplate he kept on his desk.

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Stephen Kmiotek '80, who recently joined the WPI faculty as an assistant teaching professor in chemical engineer after a 30-year career in industry, remembers Wagner as "the first professor to see us as individuals, rather than just 'the Class of 1980.' Daddy Wags got to know us personally, in class and after class, even to the point of finding out when our birthdays were so that he could sing 'Happy Birthday' to us in the middle of class. This prompted a group of us to return the favor early one Sunday morning at his front door!"

Kmiotek's memories of Wagner include seeing his office constantly filled with students looking for his help or advice (it was said that his office door was never closed), his tutoring students to help them pass the notoriously difficult chemical engineering Competency Exam, an all-or-nothing final challenge that was once a requirement for graduation under the WPI Plan ("I know of several students who would not have graduated were it not for his help," he says), and "his boundless energy and love of life.

"It's been more than 30 years since I last sat in Professor Wagner's class," he says, "but now when I walk into class to start a lecture, or when a student comes into my office with a question, I think, 'How would Bob address this.' Then I remember him jumping up and yelling 'Oooh!' and I smile."

After WPI admitted its first women undergraduates in 1968, Wagner was often sought out by women chemical engineering majors for advice and support. Among them was Sandra Wyman '78, who took two thermodynamics courses with Wagner and forged a connection with her professor through their shared interest in the outdoors and hiking. "For my IQP, I wanted to teach," she says. "I thought it would be interesting to teach at Worcester Vocational Technical High School; it, too, had just started admitting women into it programs. So I asked Professor Wagner if he would be my project advisor. Completely shocked, he flashed his toothy grin and said he'd look into it. The next day, he pulled me aside in the corridor outside his office and said, 'you and I have a meeting with Ken Scott, the director, this Friday.' I was in!"

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After she graduated, she was able to return the favor by helping Wagner arrange for WPI students to do MQPs at Monsanto's plant in Springfield, Mass., where she was then working as a process engineer. Today, she is a licensed professional engineer in Maine who conducts pollution prevention consulting for a broad range of manufacturing clients and also teaches Introduction to Engineering at Southern Maine Community College.

Not long after it began admitting women, WPI replaced its conventional undergraduate curriculum with a radically new approach to engineering education called the WPI Plan. Wagner was a skeptic. Among other concerns, he did not think all mathematics and engineering courses could be taught effectively during the Plan's seven-week terms, and he began to see that some students used the freedom the Plan gave them to shape their curricula to avoid tough courses that Wagner felt they needed to be chemical engineers.

But he did warm to the Plan over time—"my black hat is gradually turning gray," he told the WPI Journal in 1981. And, from the start, he embraced the required project work. "Projects are the best part of the Plan," he said. "They are interesting and generally fun."

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Advising chemical engineering Major Qualifying Projects gave Wagner an opportunity to share his passion for the outdoors and to take concrete steps to understand and remedy some of the injuries that human activity caused the natural world. He worked closely over the years with environmental organizations, particularly the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Nashua River Watershed Association (NRWA) to identify problems his students could tackle. "Chemical engineers are in the best shape to do this kind of environmental work," he once noted.

Among many other projects, his students discovered that fog was 50 times more acidic than acid rain (which explained the destruction of trees on mountaintops). They developed a canoeing guide to the Nashua River, studied alternatives to salt for deicing roads in winter, and invented a way to make solar composters work faster. In recognition of his many contributions to the betterment of the environment, the NRWA presented Wagner with its Conservation Award.

Wagner gained national publicity in the 1970s when his own experience with cold-weather camping led him to investigate the dangers of using cook stoves inside tents. Campers had been reporting a mysterious illness that left them with headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Wagner and Joseph Kohler, then an assistant professor of chemical engineering at WPI, did laboratory and field studies that showed that the illness was caused by poorly designed camp stoves that generated carbon monoxide when a grid used to hold a pot quenched the stove's flames, producing incomplete combustion. The results and recommendations for improving the design were covered by major newspapers and outdoor magazines.

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Wagner's interest in the environment was kindled when he began climbing mountains. He came to the pursuit somewhat late in life while on a vacation out West. He climbed the Grant Tetons at the age of 45, and went on to scale a long list of peaks in the U.S. and abroad. In New England, he joined the "4,000-footers club," becoming just the eighth person to climb all 63 peaks in New England at least 4,000 feet tall in winter. Having served as the president of the Worcester chapter and vice president of the Boston chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club and as advisor to the WPI Outing Club, Wagner delighted in leading students on mountain treks, including winter hikes in the White Mountains.

Through the years, Wagner's accomplishments as an educator earned him numerous accolades and awards. In 1972 he received the WPI Board of Trustees' Award for Outstanding Teaching; his citation noted that he had been "a helpful friend to students and faculty and an inspiring leader in his own department and in the school." Two years later, he was inducted into Skull, the student honorary society, and in 1981 he was appointed the George I. Alden Professor of Engineering. In 1992 the university honored him with the William R. Grogan Award, which recognizes contributions in support of the mission of WPI or the welfare of its students.

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More than a decade after his retirement, Wagner was welcomed back to campus for a dinner to celebrate both his legacy and the inauguration of the Robert E. Wagner Educational Fund at WPI. The dinner and the fund were spearheaded by Henry "Hank" Nowick '56, adjunct assistant professor of chemical engineering and president of Nowick Environmental Associates in Springfield, Mass. "It all started with Professor Ed Ma asking me if I could come up with a way of commemorating Bob," Nowick says. "It was Professor Ravi Datta, then head of the Chemical Engineering Department, who suggested the fund."

Nowick said the response to the fund was impressive; by October 19, 2001, the night of the tribute dinner, more than $200,000 had been raised from former students, faculty members, and friends. "There were a great many alumni who thought a lot of him," Nowick says. Sandra Wyman, who along with Stephen Kmiotek delivered remarks at the event, says "I will never forget that night. There were over 100 chemical engineers in one room, all there to see Bob—a wonderful teacher, mentor, and role model."

For his part, Wagner, at his retirement, said he looked back on his career with a mixture of satisfaction and gratitude. "I couldn't have picked a nicer, happier way of life," he said.

Wagner's wife of 64 years, Ruth S. Svejda, died in 2009. He is survived by three daughters, a grandson, a great-granddaughter, and a nephew. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on July 27, 2013, at the First Congregational Church at 19 Church Road in Shrewsbury, Mass. Burial with military honors will follow in Mountain View Cemetery in Shrewsbury. There are no calling hours.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Wagner Educational Fund at WPI, University Advancement, 100 Institute Road, Worcester, MA 01609.