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East County Wednesday, Jul. 28, 2021 3 months ago

Lakewood Ranch centenarian became an exceptional sailor in Mackinac races

Centenarian Jack Wagner loving life at The Sheridan at Lakewood Ranch
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

Jack Wagner has, indeed, sailed through his 104 years.

As a boy growing up during the Great Depression, he dreamed of building a huge model of a three-mast schooner.. He settled for building model cars.

A few days before his 104th birthday July 25, Wagner stood in front of an intricate model of the USS Confederacy, a 36-gun sailing frigate of the Continental Navy launched in 1778 during the American Revolutionary War. The huge model is encased in clear plastic in a room at The Sheridan at Lakewood Ranch. It is a prized conversation piece at the senior assisted living facility.

Wagner built the model using 14 different kinds of wood after taking a model shipbuilding class in Sarasota beginning in 1998. It took him more than two years to complete the project.

"It was a lot of intricate work," he said. "Each step of the project was done individually and then assembled. If you turn the wheel, it will turn the rudder."

He pointed at an American flag at the back of the ship.

"It's made of aluminum foil and painted, so it won't move," he said with a laugh. 

Wagner never built real ships during his life, but his reputation as a sailor in the Detroit area grew during 30 years of sailing Lake Huron and the surrounding waterways. His crowning achievement was winning the 1962 Bayview-Mackinac Overall Cruising Class, a racing series that is still run today.

Upon retiring in 1985, Wagner moved to Palm Aire, where he lived until three years ago when he became a resident at the The Sheridan. He said he and his wife Leona loved every minute at Palm Aire as they were active in the country club lifestyle. He played tennis three times a week and golf four times.

"I had to stop playing golf four years ago," he said. "My sciatic nerve was so bad. I was 99 and I did my own cooking and I kept our place clean. I took care of my wife (Leona is now 99), and pushed her in her wheelchair. But when you get to be 99, you can't do all this stuff. You need to sit down and relax."

He said his move to The Sheridan has been one of the best decisions of his life.

"I love it here," he said. "There are good people here."

Wagner is somewhat of a celebrity at The Sheridan. The staff and his fellow residents are impressed with his great condition and energy. They celebrated his birthday July 25, and then Palm Aire Country Club held another celebration for him July 28.

"Palm Aire Country club says I have an open door anytime I ever want to come back," he said.

The son of a business owner, Wagner said he had few worries during his younger days in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, but that doesn't mean he didn't experience some hard times. Unable to be drafted into service during World War II (Wager has a non-functioning right arm), he worked in an airplane parts factory beginning in 1941.

"The first day there, I worked 14 hours," he said. "Then we worked seven days a week for four straight years. We made aircraft engine parts. They had 350 employees when I first joined. Two years later, they had 5,000 employees, mostly women."

Wagner said the company, during the war effort, would put up a foundation for an expansion and the women would go to work there with no walls around them. Then they would continue working as the walls were being built around them.

Jack Wagner built a model of the Confederacy that now is a conversation piece at The Sheridan at Lakewood Ranch.

While he learned an important lesson about working hard during the war years, he said he learned another lesson that served him well from his father, Elmer F. Wagner, early in life. His dad bought their family home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in 1932 for $13,500. It previously had sold for $28,000 in 1928.

He said, "My father taught me, 'A man who saves his money can name his price."

Living near Detroit, Henry Ford Jr., was in his high school class (Edsel Ford, the president of Ford Motor Company from 1919 to 1943, was his father). Henry Ford Jr.,'s brother, Benson Ford, was a class behind. Benson Ford at one time ran the Lincoln Motor Company.

As a member of the Bayview Yacht Club in Detroit, Wagner would bump into Benson Ford.

"I used to ask him why he wasn't a member of a ritzier club," Wagner said. "He said, 'Not one person at this club ever has asked me for a deal on a car.'"

Wagner had one brother, Elmer A. Wagner, who was older. That was important because Wagner said in German families it often is customary to favor the eldest brother.

"My brother would get a bicycle, and I wouldn't get one," he said.

Jack Wagner always has loved ships and building model ships.

That was countered by his mother, Edna Catherine Wagner, who favored him.

"She was an Irish sweetheart," he said.

While he has a century packed with experiences, his best memories went back to sailing.

"As soon as the war (WWII) was over, I got tired of trying to play golf," he said. "I joined the yacht club. I bought my first boat and tried to race it, but I was last in every race. That boat was slow.

"Then I bought a 34-foot sloop (Sparkman and Stephens) with my friend Dick Jeffrey. We took lessons from sailors and we got so efficient we started winning races. Sailing was my favorite ... the quietness, the challenge, the speed."

These days, his attention focuses on world events because he mainly, "eats, sleeps and drinks."

"I never have missed a vote my entire life," the dedicated Republican said. "So I keep my head above water. I want to know what is happening in the world."

While the pandemic has caused some difficult conditions, that hasn't bothered him too much.

"We were all locked in here, but I have no where to go," he said. "Three weeks ago, we just started going to church again. We had been watching mass on television."

Does he have any tips on living a long life?

"Live a good Christian life," he said. "Don't lie to people. And don't worry a lot. Worrying makes people old. Love your neighbor like yourself. If you eat garbage, you will look like garbage.

"I don't know how I lived this long, but I've always felt if you enjoy life, you will get a lot out of life. "

Leona Wagner added another tip.

"You need to have a sense of humor," she said.

She was asked if Jack has a sense of humor?

"Yes, thank God!"

Jack Wagner, left, celebrates with his crew after winning the Bayview-Mackinac Overall Cruising Class in 1962.


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