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Epilogue | Ruth Whetstone Wagner

Ruth Whetstone Wagner often made the political personal

Ruth Whetstone Wagner is pictured with Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas. Wagner got involved in Florida campaigns in 2002.

Courtesy of Bill Wagner

Ruth Whetstone Wagner is pictured with Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas. Wagner got involved in Florida campaigns in 2002.

TAMPA — She worked on Bill McBride's campaign for governor and, four years later, helped elect Alex Sink as Florida's chief financial officer.

President Bill Clinton gave her a personal tour of the White House after appointing her to a Kennedy Center advisory board.

When she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2008, Joe Biden, the future vice president, called to express his concern.

Ruth Whetstone Wagner, a lawyer by profession, counted among her friends some of the best-known political figures of the last three decades — the result of her work as a Democratic activist.

Mrs. Wagner died Sept. 15 of ALS. She was 69.

Political inclinations came early to the Arkansas native, largely due to the influence of her father, Bernard Whetstone, a Little Rock lawyer, according to her husband, lawyer Bill Wagner.

"Her father was a lawyer who practiced by himself and that involved helping people who were in real stress and economic hardship," Bill Wagner said. "That got her started in feeling a more empathetic view in helping people whose lives had been affected by things out of their control. She wanted to get to know the people she was working for."

Her activist spirit was part of what drew Wagner to her when the two met on a trip to China with a group of lawyers in 1984.

A law student at the University of Arkansas at the time, Mrs. Wagner moved to Florida and finished her last two semesters at Stetson University College of Law. She married Bill Wagner and became a partner at his firm, Wagner, Vaughan and McLaughlin.

They tried a civil case together in the early 1990s in which they represented a man who had suffered a back injury in an accident.

Mrs. Wagner was dissatisfied with the jury selection and wanted her husband to ask for a mistrial. He didn't think they could sway the judge, but it worked. They went on to win the case with the verdict awarding the plaintiff more than $1.5 million.

"If your wife really proves you wrong, it sticks in your mind for a long time," Bill Wagner said.

In their 24 years of marriage, they traveled the world, visiting China, India, Mongolia, Europe and many other places.

She was well acquainted with the political figures in Arkansas, including former Gov. Clinton.

When Clinton became president, he appointed her to an advisory board for Washington's performing arts center. She traveled there four times a year to raise funds and help attract artists.

Though Mrs. Wagner was no stranger to politics — her first husband lost an election for Arkansas attorney general in the 1970s — it wasn't until Bill McBride's campaign for governor in 2002 that she got involved in Florida campaigns.

She was close to McBride's wife, Alex Sink. When Sink ran for CFO in 2006, she named Mrs. Wagner campaign administrator. She later chaired Sink's inauguration committee.

"She was the first person I called when I decided to run, and she was all about it," Sink said. "We were just like twin sisters for a year and a half. Politics was her hobby, and it was part of what we shared."

Sink, now running to be Florida's governor, visited Mrs. Wagner two days before she died.

Mrs. Wagner's campaign involvement acquainted her with numerous local political figures.

"She was very concerned about making the community better," said Hillsborough Circuit Court Clerk Pat Frank. "She was always very positive up to the very end."

"She was beautiful inside and beautiful outside," former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said. "Everyone just kind of gravitated toward her."

The two formed a small group of friends that included Democratic and Republican women who would attend social events.

In the last months of her life, Mrs. Wagner's friends made it a point to visit her at least once a month, Freedman said.

"The last time I saw her, she was as beautiful as the first time I met her," Freedman said. "I miss her already."

Dan Sullivan can be reached at (813) 226-3321 or dsullivan@sptimes.com.

. Biography

Ruth Whetstone Wagner

Born: June 28, 1941.

Died: Sept. 15, 2010.

Survivors: Husband Bill Wagner; daughters Tracy Dalton Nonweiler and husband David and their three children of Tulsa, Okla., and Caroline Powell Lorgen and husband Eivind and their two children of Oslo, Norway; stepsons Alan Wagner and wife Deborah and their two children, Darryl Wagner and wife Karen, and Tom Wagner and wife Rose and their two sons; mother Carolyn Whetstone of Arkansas; brother Bud and wife Kim and his daughter and her husband; and sisters B.K. Smith of Houston, Martha Whetstone of San Francisco and Becky Whetstone of San Antonio, Texas.

Ruth Whetstone Wagner often made the political personal 09/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 25, 2010 10:45pm]
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