Former head of Quincy College music department remembered as teacher, scholar, mentor

Lavern Wagner
Posted: Dec. 6, 2012 10:58 am Updated: Dec. 20, 2012 11:19 am

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

Lavern Wagner, who built the Quincy College music department into a nationally recognized program and was a mentor to generations of students and co-workers, died Tuesday at age 86.

A native of Bellevue, Iowa, Mr. Wagner's lifelong love of music was first evident when he played with a hometown band. He performed with the 534th Army Air Force Band during World War II at Williams Field near Phoenix and the 238th Army Ground Forces Band at Amchitka, Alaska.

Mr. Wagner earned his doctorate in musicology -- the study of music history -- from the University of Wisconsin in 1957, and he was the first to receive a degree in that discipline from that university. He came to Quincy College in 1958, when only one other faculty member was in the music department and the school had three students music majors, no band or chorus. Mr. Wagner, who served as chairman of the music department for 27 years, from 1958 to 1985, recruited teachers and students, and won accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music in 1968.

"We wouldn't have what we have musically in Quincy right now if he hadn't been chairman of the music department at Quincy College," said Pam Potter, longtime conductor of the Quincy Park Band.

Dan Sherman, a retired music teacher at Quincy High School, was not related to Mr. Wagner, but he felt the death as if it were in his own family.

"He was responsible for me coming to Quincy," Sherman said.

Sherman was attending high school in Chicago when Wagner offered him a music scholarship to Quincy College. Wagner and his family remained close friends and would often invite Sherman and his wife, Pam, to meals.

"We almost feel like family," Sherman said.

Mr. Wagner and his wife, Joan, were married in 1951, had 11 children and adopted three others. Music was important to the entire Wagner family, which made three records. The first of these, "Christmas With the Wagner Family Singers," was recorded in 1974.

Mr. Wagner played trumpet with the Quincy Park Band for 45 years. He played early musical instruments with the Quincy Early Music Consort and the accordion with the Heidelberg German Band.

"He was not only a good musician and writer, he was absolutely the best musicologist. He'll be sorely missed by the music world," Potter said.

Mr. Wagner's first large-scale music history work was published in 1981 after 25 years of research. The 14-volume work, "The Music of Composers From the Low Countries at the Court of Philip II in Spain, 1560-1600," was based on Wagner's doctoral dissertation.

He next published scholarly articles on the 19th-century U.S. town bands. During that research, he found music that Potter described as "just sitting in some college library somewhere." Mr. Wagner transcribed some of the music for bands and published "Band Music From the Benjamin H. Grierson Collection." He published "Liturgical Music for English Speaking Churches" in 2010.

"He was very intellectual in his studies of old music," Sherman said.

Joan Wagner died in 1996. Two years later, Mr. Wagner married Beatrice Kee, who survives.

Among his many honors, Mr. Wagner was recognized this year for his transcription of Civil War-era band music. In addition he received a National Endowment of the Humanities Fellowship in Renaissance Music in 1975-76, billing as featured speaker at Europalia 85 Espana in Brussels in 1985, the 1991 Charles R. Winking Award for outstanding work in music education at Quincy College, and the 2008 Quincy Arts Award for contributions to the city's cultural life.