The Dahlgren community honored Gary Wagner, public affairs officer for Naval Support Activity South Potomac, for 38 years of service at his retirement ceremony Dec. 6 at the University of Mary Washington Dahlgren Campus. The ceremony charted a career that began in 1975, when Wagner began an internship program at the then-Naval Surface Weapons Center in Dahlgren as a college student.
Since then, Wagner has lent his considerable talents to the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Naval Space Command, Naval Network and Space Operations Command, and finally, NSASP.
“I think all of you are here because [Gary] is one of the best people you know, one of the best in his profession,” said Jeron Hayes, public affairs specialist for NSASP and ceremony emcee. “He knows everything about everything.”
Hayes praised Wagner for his “calm center” and unwavering professionalism. “I have learned much from him,” she said. “I’ve been honored to work for him and with him. He’s been a fantastic asset to our command.”
Capt. Pete Nette, commanding officer of NSASP, complimented Wagner on his support to NSASP during Nette’s tour. “The time has come to bid farewell to one of our best,” said Nette. “These past 28 months have been rewarding, enjoyable, hectic, fast-paced and filled with countless seemingly more and more important engagements. I don’t know if it’s on purpose, or if [Gary] just wants to go out in style.”
Nette said Wagner’s mastery of public affairs was evident in “his newspaper and magazine articles, engagement at the local, state and federal levels, phone interviews, radio interviews and ceremonies.”
“Whenever you get to a command or any type of leadership position, you assess who is with you and who is going to go the distance,” Nette continued. “I have had the honor and privilege of having worked with Gary, someone who has exposed me to the finer points of things such as public speaking, my attempt at a radio interview and showing up [to events] in the right uniform. Before I went anywhere, [my wife] Pauline would always ask ‘Is Gary going with you?’ If the answer was yes, than I knew that she felt good, because the opportunity to misstep just decreased by ten-fold.”
Nette thanked Wagner for helping him lead NSASP and for his friendship. “[Gary’s] dedication to his trade and his loyalty to the mission at the command has been remarkable,” said Nette. “He is typically the last one to leave the building, as well. I truly enjoyed working with him. I find his leadership and wisdom welcoming and look up to Gary as a true friend.”
Nette presented Wagner with a certificate honoring his 38 years of loyal service. Wagner also received a beautiful, hand-made wooden steamer chest as a retirement gift.
Pete Kolakowski, operations department head for NSWCDD, thanked Wagner for all his assistance to Dahlgren’s largest tenant command over the years. “We still need that key that you didn’t return,” Kolakowski joked.
“You’re out of luck,” replied a smiling Wagner, to the audience’s amusement.
Kolakowski praised Wagner’s patience and his knowledge of all things Dahlgren, expertise that helped NSWCDD celebrated the 200th birthday of Rear Adm. John Dahlgren in 2009. “Gary jumped into it with both feet,” said Kolakowski. “If anybody ever wants a 30-minute, hour, or four-hour tour of the base, he is somebody who is one of the best tour guides I’ve ever seen.”
Wagner’s professionalism helped smooth over differences in mission and perspective between commands at Dahlgren, making events like Rear Adm. Dahlgren’s birthday celebration successful. “Gary assisted us in rolling out the Dahlgren welcome mat,” said Kolakowski. “It was seamless. It was the U.S. Navy to the Dahlgren family and the community. Ever since then, I think Gary and I have felt that way. We are the Navy, even though there are various commands.”
A long list of co-workers, former bosses and acquaintances came to the podium to offer kind words to Wagner for all he accomplished in his long career.
Ed Jones, president of the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation and a former editor of the Free Lance-Star newspaper, enjoyed an odd-couple relationship with Wagner over the years. “By job definition, I should have been Gary Wagner’s worst nightmare,” said Jones. “For many years, I was the editor of the daily newspaper in the area. With all of those reporters snooping around to try and get stories that may or may not be in line with what Gary and the commanding officer might like, I think it’s a tribute to Gary’s professionalism that I have become one of his heartiest admirers.”
Gloria Savage-Early, site director for Old Dominion University at the University of Mary Washington Dahlgren Campus, met Wagner at a King George Chamber of Commerce meeting soon after accepting her position. “Immediately, I was impressed with him,” she recalled. “He has such a calmness about him. Everybody talked about that because you don’t have to be around him a long time to experience it. Because I was new and didn’t know a lot of people, he made me feel so welcome, just meeting him. He expressed to me what this area is all about: gentleness and kindness toward people.”
Homer Hite, president of the Potomac Gateway Alliance, thanked Wagner for assisting his organization in many ways, such as helping base visitors navigate Dahlgren’s security. “I appreciate all the help you’ve given me and the Gateway Alliance,” he said. “I thank you for that.”
Joe Grzeika, member of the King George County Board of Supervisors, thanked Wagner for the professionalism that helped the base and the county work through challenges. Though he and Wagner did not always agree, said Grzeika, their friendship endured. “Gary, we appreciate the relationship, the partnership, the friendship that you have had with the county over these many years. You’ve been a champion, an advocate and a collaborator and we appreciate that. You’re the face of the base; you’re the entry point and you do good job putting positive energy into all you do.”
Dan Crowl, former deputy commander at Naval Network and Space Operations Command said he “depended” on Wagner’s expertise and respected the “outstanding results” of Wagner’s efforts.
Crowl once discussed his own retirement with Wagner from the Marine Corps after 38 years of service; Wagner patiently wrote several draft retirement letters for Crowl before he finally accepted one. “God bless you and your family,” Crowl told Wagner. “You’ve done a hell of a great job for this country. You’re a true American and I’m proud of you and everybody in the room is proud of you.”
Julie Gifford, regional military liaison for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, said Wagner’s skill improved the relationship between the state and Dahlgren. “It’s been an honor to work with Gary,” she said. “I’ve learned from him and he’s just one of the best [public affairs officers] I’ve ever worked with. He’s made the relationship between the Commonwealth and Dahlgren even better. On behalf of the governor, I want to thank you for your service to this country and the Commonwealth.”
Joe Montano, northern Virginia regional director for Sen. Tim Kaine, noted that he was just beginning his own career as Wagner neared retirement. Kaine’s recent visit to Dahlgren was the first organized by Montano and he received much assistance from the public affairs veteran. “The relationship between my boss and this base is owed to that first visit and Gary was a big part of that,” said Montano. “Thank you Gary, for being so helpful for me in my new role.”
When the man of the hour took the stage, he thanked all who helped him during his successful career. “You have honored me by all of you being here today,” said Wagner. “Thank you so much. You definitely have touched my heart.”
Wagner looked to some famous writers to help put retirement into perspective. “Ernest Hemingway said that retirement is the ugliest word in the English language,” he said, grinning. “I’m not quite sure what his issue was with retirement.”
Wagner thought Gene Perret, writer for The Carol Burnett Show, offered a better perspective. Perret famously wrote “I enjoy waking up and not having to go to work, so I do it three or four times a day.”
On a more serious note, Wagner said the season was fitting for his retirement. “The Thanksgiving season, the Christmas season, is very special to me because it causes me to reflect on the many blessings that we have,” he said. “It’s a season of thanksgiving, of hope, of peace and goodwill.”
Keeping that meaning of the season in mind, Wagner offered a long list of the many things for which he is thankful. “I’m thankful as well to the U.S. Navy,” he said. “It’s been a great 38 years.”
Wagner thanked all who helped him during his career, from his time leading the NSASP public affairs, to the mentors in the early part of his career when he was “wet behind the ears.”
Wagner said the thing that kept him going was the fun he had doing his job; the thing he will miss the most, however, is the people. “In spite of all the experiences, good and bad, all along the way, it’s been the people that I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with all these many years,” he said.
Working for a command like NSASP has also been highly-rewarding, said Wagner. “[We] are mutually supporting, mutually respectful of one another and what each person brings to the fight. We’ve truly been a team.”
Wagner thanked Nette for helping make the last few years of his career so enjoyable and productive. “I couldn’t have asked for a better commanding officer in my last boss,” Wagner said. “He is one of the most sincere, genuine and affirming leaders I have ever worked for.”
Most of all, however, Wagner thanked his family. “I want to say thank you to my mom and my dad. Dad passed on some years ago but Mom is here today. When I think about my folks, the thing that I really remember the most is that they were never cynical about things I wanted to do in my life. They were always supportive.
“And thanks to my wife, Sally,” Wagner continued. “She’s my best friend, my soul mate and the richest of all God’s gifts to me.”