Wagner inducted into NPA Hall of Fame
By Jamie Suhr
J Alumni News staff
Paul Wagner has seen a lot in his 60 years of journalism, and he brought those experiences with him as the 49th inductee to the Hall of Fame.
Wagner was introduced by 1998 inductee Emil Reutzel Jr., who has known him since 1946 and worked with Wagner in Washington, D.C. The award was presented April 6 during the Nebraska Press Association convention in Lincoln.
“He was a very quiet, competent individual with good judgment, and he does it without any fanfare,” said Reutzel, retired editor of The Norfolk Daily News. “He kept in the background much more than people do today.”
Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association, said Wagner was an innovator in the journalism field.
“His thinking set the trend,” Beermann said. “He was a mentor to a lot of publishers.”One of his students, Henry Trysla, started working with Wagner in 1946. Trysla, who was the editor for the South Sioux City Star for 40 years, credited Wagner with helping him achieve his success and not being afraid to try something different.
“He was ahead of his time,” Trysla said. “He was in a weekly newspaper, and he was the first to establish a sports page and an opinion page.”
Wagner took his experiences in journalism from Dakota Country all the way to the White House where he worked with former Nebraska Sen. Val Peterson and former President Dwight Eisenhower.
After working at the White House, Wagner turned his attention to public relations, where he fashioned a successful career.
“Whatever he did, he attracted good people and did a great job,” Trysla said. But Wagner’s road didn’t lead directly to the White House. He started as a janitor at the Homer Star, a weekly newspaper in Dakota County, owned by his parents.
There he was raised to be a journalist, and he went on to study at the University of Nebraska. While studying journalism at NU, Wagner worked at the Lincoln newspaper and then moved to the United Press International after graduation. There, he covered the statehouse before becoming UPI’s Lincoln Bureau manager in 1941.
Wagner took a 44-month hiatus from journalism to serve in the U.S. Navy as a naval aviation cadet during World War II. Once he returned, he ran the Sioux City Star until 1950, when Gov. Peterson offered him a job as his administrative assistant.
President Eisenhower named Peterson the head of the Federal Civil Defense Agency, and Peterson brought Wagner along. Wagner was appointed special assistant to the White House. Shortly after, Wagner became assistant administrator for education services and would occasionally send letters to friends and family on White House stationery.
“That was just me bragging,” Wagner said.
While Wagner was working for the president, the Cold War was in high gear. The United States was racing the Russians to develop nuclear weapons. Wagner was invited not just once but twice to view the detonation of the hydrogen bomb. He remembers the experience as unbelievable.
Wagner quickly moved up the ranks. In 1959, be became deputy assistant director of the Office of Defense Mobilization, based in Washington. He said working with the president was a great experience.
“I liked Eisenhower very much,” Wagner said. “I like how he ran the place.” After Eisenhower left office, Wagner decided to make a change of careers and left the United States government. When Peterson asked Wagner whom he’d recommend to fill his shoes at the Office of Defense Mobilization, without hesitation, Wagner recommended Reutzel.
“Without a doubt, it was his friendship and knowledge that led Peterson to choose me,” Reutzel said. “I will always feel indebted to him.”
Wagner turned his attention to public relations, where he joined the Washington office of Selvage and Lee as a lobbyist and helped create one of the top public relations firms in Downs & Roosevelt, whose clients included the nations of Portugal, Lebanon and Iran.
Just a year after developing D&R, Wagner was asked to join presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s staff as press secretary in 1964. Goldwater’s candidacy proved to be unsuccessful, however, and Goldwater returned to the Senate in 1966, where Wagner wrote a number of his speeches.
In 1970, Wagner joined his friend Joseph Baroody to form another PR firm, Wagner & Baroody. The firm was hired by the Republican National Committee and ran the next five Republican national conventions.
The firm came under fire after the Washington Post reported that W&B represented President Richard Nixon’s re-election organization, the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
Wagner’s firm was cleared by a federal grand jury of any wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal. Despite the allegations, the firm prospered with such clients as the Republic of Korea, Daewoo, Lucky Goldstar and Royal Jordanian Airlines and worked closely with representatives from Taiwan.
Wagner bought out Baroody in 1987, sold his share to Robert Avary and William Hines and renamed the firm Wagner, Hines & Avary. Wagner retired in 1996 but said he still stops in the office from time to time.
Working in the state and federal governments and in public relations made Wagner’s career unique, Reutzel said.
“He had a varied career,” Reutzel said. “It’s a great satisfaction knowing how effective he was in the public relations field. It’s a great privilege to present him to the Hall of Fame.”
Beermann had a simple explanation for Wagner’s receiving the honor.
“The cream rises to the top, and he’s one of those,” he said.