Ross C. Wagner is proof that a small-town kid from the Midwest can make a difference.

Ross WagnerWith a life story that reads like it was conceived by a Hollywood screenwriter, Ross was a shining example of why he and his peers are so often referred to as “The Greatest Generation.”

Wagner was born on January 30, 1923 in Dubuque, Iowa to William and Emma Wagner.  Since visits to the hospital were reserved for life-threatening illnesses in those days, Ross and his two brothers LaVerne and Bill were all born at home.  The Wagner family operated a grocery store that was located across the street from the fire department and kiddy corner from the high school.  When the fire alarm went off, the family dog would race out of the store and across the street and jump on the fire engine and ride along with the firefighters.

William was a ruff-n-gruff father figure and Emma was a compassionate, affectionate and caring person who always thought of others.  Though William had a rough exterior, he had a heart of gold. During the Great Depression, he often carried his customer’s debts so they could have food to eat.  At Christmas one year, the Wagner’s offered Christmas trees for sale.  One night a young boy came in and wanted to buy a tree for his family.  William asked the boy which tree he would like and the child pointed to the best tree on the lot.  The boy didn’t look like he could afford the worst tree on the lot let alone the best.  William asked the kid how much money he had and sold him the best tree at well below cost.

Ross joined the army when World War II broke out.  After the death of the five Sullivan Brothers of nearby Waterloo, Iowa, in the sinking of the USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, the United States would not allow siblings to be assigned to the same units.  However, Ross and his brother LaVerne, both found themselves on Iwo Jima in 1945 – LaVerne in the Marines and Ross in the Army.

Ross was one of thousands of U.S. sailors, soldiers and marines who erupted into cheers when the American flag was raised atop Mount Suribachi.  The second, more famous flag raising captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal a few hours later went almost unnoticed by the soldiers and sailors at the time.

After the war, Ross returned home and began school at Loras College in Dubuque.  Though not an “A” student while in high school before the war, Ross was granted a scholarship based on need – a fact that he never forgot and was forever grateful.  He graduated from Loras and completed his studies at the University of Iowa.

During that time he also met the woman who would be his wife, Phyllis Duitsman.  The two met at a dance in which they attended with other dates.  The next day, Ross called up Phyllis and asked her out on a date.  One could say they hit it off because they were engaged two months later.  They proved to be a perfect match.  Ross, with his serious “all-business” persona, and Phyllis, with her gentle nature made a great team.

Following graduation, Ross returned to Loras as a teacher and coach.  A good athlete, he was a key member of the 1947 Loras College football team that outscored its opponents 212-58.  The only football squad to go undefeated (9-0) in school history, the 1947 Duhawks declined a postseason bowl bid fearing financial loss.  The entire team was inducted into the Loras College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1988.

Ross and Phyllis moved to Minneapolis in 1951 after he took a job with Honeywell.  Meanwhile, Ross and Phyllis began a family raising four children; daughters Jhan, Jill & Ann and son Mike.  The Wagners moved with Honeywell to Colorado in 1961.  In 1971, they returned to Minnesota after Ross accepted a position with ADC Magnetic Controls.  Ross served a majority of his career at ADC from 1971 to 1988 as Vice President and General Manager.  During his tenure, ADC grew from $3.5 million in sales to $400 million.  Today, ADC is a world leader in communications services providing network hardware and telecommunications products.

Though an astute businessman, his daughter Ann Wagner-Hauser recalls how her father had a lighter side unseen by many people.  She said the Wagner children used to call Ross at work and try to make him do silly things.  “He was all business when he answered the phone,” Ann said. “He’d pick up the phone and say really quick ‘Wagner here!’ Then we’d say ‘Wagner here? No… Wagner here!’ He’d put up with us and was just really a great guy.

“He would never come home angry,” added Ann. “We used to ask Mom if Dad EVER had a bad day because he was always in a positive mood and looked forward to every day.”

Though he retired from ADC in 1988, Ross lost none of his passion for business and lending a helping hand to those less fortunate.  He was a member of the Board of Directors for Gemini Incorporated, a world leader in the development and production of dimensional letters, logos and plaques.  He would go on to serve as the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Gemini and was instrumental in several engineering decisions at Gemini in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Sadly, Ross lost his battle with colon caner in 1992.  To keep his memory alive, his family created a scholarship in his name at Loras College.  In addition, Gemini Incorporated, inspired by Ross’ dedication to excellence, has established the Ross Wagner Scholarship for engineering excellence with funding of $2 million to be awarded to as many students as qualified until the fund exhausts itself.

The intent of the Ross Wagner Scholarship is to provide a full scholarship for students majoring in civil, aeronautical, mechanical, electrical, aerospace and chemical engineering.  Students seeking degrees in chemistry and physics may also apply. It is open to students from United States and Canadian schools where Gemini has plants; Cannon Falls, MN; Farmville, VA; Fallon, NV; Taylor, TX; Decorah, IA; Hanover, Ontario; and the hometowns of Gemini’s founders; Howard, SD and Randolph, MN.

In addition, the student must be enrolled in one of the top 30 engineering schools in the U.S. and Canada as rated by U.S. News and World Report (those that include Doctorate programs).  Additionally, McGill University, the University of Western Ontario and Simon Fraser University at Vancouver, British Columbia.  The student must maintain a B grade-point average, work in the school’s engineering lab, and work in the field of endeavor during summer break.

Several full-expense reimbursement scholarships are available each year.  To apply or for a complete list of guidelines for the Ross Wagner Scholarship, email no later than February 1 of each year.