VOICES: A.J. Wagner belonged to the whole community

When I first met A.J. Wagner (former Montgomery County Auditor and Judge), it was the late winter of 1995. My friend Megan Dixon had written a letter to the editor of the Dayton City Paper announcing our organizing meeting for RESULTS, an anti-poverty advocacy group. It was to be a meeting of citizens who wanted to work to end poverty everywhere by lobbying the US Congress on ways they could redirect funding to help those most in need.

A.J. did something I had never seen anyone do up to that time in my years with RESULTS: he just showed up at the meeting in an Oregon District restaurant. Just from reading the letter. He was the Montgomery County Auditor at the time. He joined the Dayton volunteer group that day, the only elected official I know of that joined a RESULTS group while still in office.

During that year, A.J. had an op-ed published in the Dayton Daily News called ‘I Am a Welfare Success Story.’ In it, he told the world of his financially impoverished youth. He would say that money was short but not the spirit of plenty and love he had experienced growing up. He said how welfare had helped him and his family survive. How good public schools helped him to be educated, allowed him to go to law school and become a successful person. He reminded us of the good work done by others before and during this time on the history of poverty. How in one person’s words that poverty was a common ancestor to us all. He told me he took a lot of flak from the public and other politicians for the op-ed. But in true A.J. form, he said he didn’t care. It was the right thing to do.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

How many times can all of us hear him saying the same thing - it is the right thing to do.

A.J. and I would stay in touch in the years after I left Dayton in 1998.

With his death last month, perhaps it’s selfish for me to say, but I just wanted more time with A.J. Another decade or two, or at least another election cycle, or another month or week or day. Working and talking with him inspired me to do more, to go further, to try harder, to be better. You can’t replace that feeling. You can just try to embody it, every day.

Sam Daley-Harris, founder RESULTS and who was also a good friend of A.J.’s, shared this George Bernard Shaw quote with me many years ago. I think it captures what A.J. was all about:

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.”

For over 37 years, Nick Arena has worked for not-for-profits that work on health, economic and social justice issues. Currently, he works for a community bank in Washington DC and volunteers his time with several anti-hunger organizations and the local community radio station WPFW FM.

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