To find Craig Wagner, visitors must head well into the hills north of Bigfork proper, and traverse a meandering road that tends to ice over this time of year.
Late Monday morning, the gray clouds hang low over the valley, adding to the pre-winter stillness that seems to have taken over the landscape. This quiet beauty is a far cry from the harried pace that marked much of Wagner’s life — first in the United States Marine Corps and later in education, followed by countless hours volunteering on various community boards and organizations.
He undoubtedly has a heart for service and got an early start at the age of 17.
“This recruiter came down from MCRD [the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot] in San Diego with a tank and brought it over to where we had military classes,” Wagner said. “A whole bunch of us thought that might not be a bad idea.”
At 17 he was too young to enlist without approval from his parents, so they signed the dotted line, allowing him to join the Marine Corps Reserves. After graduating from San Diego State University, Wagner applied for the Marine Corps Officer Candidate Course and was then assigned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, once his training in Quantico, Virginia, was complete.
“We called it Camp Swampy,” Wagner said of the infamously hot and muggy base.
For two years he served as a platoon commander and was tasked with managing five tanks. In training, they practiced tactics such as armored envelopment, where they attacked an enemy’s flank or rear, along with many hours of shooting.
“It was fun — we had a ball,” Wagner said smiling. “When you have five tanks, nobody screws with you.”
Wagner was discharged in 1962 and returned to the San Diego area.
When he looks back on his military service, he considers himself fortunate. On Veterans Day, Wagner remembers those who had it rougher than he did, like the warriors of World War I and World War II.
“It’s very meaningful in the fact that it’s honoring those people who were in combat in very, very adverse conditions. World War I was not pleasant, neither was WWII,” Wagner said. “The trench fighting in WWI … then the invasions that the Marines did — those guys went through hell.”
Upon leaving the Marine Corps, Wagner found another way to serve. His mother had mailed him a newspaper clipping that mentioned San Diego City Schools was seeking college graduates for their internship program. Wagner was in. After two years, the principal pulled him aside and asked if he’d be interested in special education.
“I said, ‘OK, let me give her a whirl,’” Wagner recalled.
That “whirl” turned into a 35-year career in special education. His first foray was leading a workshop where special ed students were taught various crafting skills.
“Once a semester in the evening we’d hold a sale. We’d sell cutting boards, ceramics, knitting, weaving, sewing. We’d make $8,000 in an evening and we put that back into the program and paid the kids,” he said. “It was fun to make them understand their own worth. Some of them have real good skills, say sanding or making things out of tile. We just had a lot of fun making a lot of projects.”
He enjoyed empowering the students and helping them gain employment at hotels and fast-food eateries.
Although he never planned to land in the classroom, Wagner had teaching in his blood — his mother spent nearly 40 years teaching on reservations.
“It just happened — It worked out well,” Wagner said.
And after retirement, Wagner continued to bolster his community service resume. He spent four years on the Flathead County Board of Adjustment, served on the Bigfork Steering Committee and the USS Montana SSN 794 Committee. Most recently, he’s joined the board of the Bigfork ACES after-school program and within a year helped the organization with financial investments, bylaw revisions and capital fundraising.
When asked what keeps him going at 83 years young, Wagner says his volunteer work is good for his health, and gives him a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s just fun and it’s good health-wise to do something,” he said. “I just saw things that needed to be done and did them.” »