In Memory: Paul Wagner

The College’s ninth president, who was the nation’s youngest college president when he took office in 1949, died in December.

Paul Wagner takes over Hamilton Holt's office in 1949. (Rollins College Archives) Paul Wagner takes over Hamilton Holt's office in 1949. (Rollins College Archives)

Paul A. Wagner, who served as the ninth president of Rollins College from 1949 to 1951, died December 23, 2015. He was 98.

When Wagner took office just shy of his 32nd birthday, he became the nation’s youngest college president. The move “created a considerable stir in the academic world,” according to Jack Lane’s Rollins College: A Centennial History.

Lane writes that Newsweek made Wagner’s appointment its major educational story of the week, and Colliers magazine called him “Education’s New Boy Wonder.”

It was an apt title. Wagner graduated high school by 16, received his degree from the University of Chicago at 19, and, a few years later, earned his master’s from Yale.

Paul Wagner arrives at the Winter Park train station with his wife Paula and son Paul Jr. (Rollins College Archives) Paul Wagner arrives at the Winter Park train station with his wife Paula and son Paul Jr. (Rollins College Archives)

Known for his innovative use of audio-visual material while teaching at the University of Chicago and Great Lakes Naval Training School, he was commissioned to the Naval War College in the spring of 1942. There, he created the Navy’s first audio-visual lab before joining photography company Bell & Howell after World War II.

At Rollins, the story surrounding his hiring is almost too unbelievable to be true.

As Lane tells it, when Wagner learned that the College was looking for a new president in the summer of 1949, he flew to Florida on an impulse and arrived unannounced at the office of then-president Hamilton Holt—while Holt was interviewing another candidate.

Hamilton Holt wishes his successor, Paul Wagner, good luck in the office of Rollins College presidency. (Rollins College Archives) Hamilton Holt wishes his successor, Paul Wagner, good luck in the office of Rollins College presidency. (Rollins College Archives)

After spending a single hour with Wagner later that evening, Holt recommended him to the search committee. A tall, confident, attractive man—well-versed in conversation and with a knack for salesmanship—Wagner won over faculty, students, and trustees during a series of interviews. He was unanimously elected by the board.

Wagner’s presidency, however, was short-lived, as controversy surrounding his budgeting decisions ultimately led to his departure. During Wagner’s tenure, he dropped the football program (which ran a $50,000 annual deficit) and threatened to discontinue other sports for financial purposes.

More significantly, his reactions to outside economic pressures affecting colleges everywhere—rampant inflation, decreasing enrollment of World War II veterans, and fears of the Korean War draft severely reducing the male population—led him to dismiss a third of the entire faculty in March 1951.

Two months later, after much debate, Wagner was replaced by longtime art professor Hugh McKean.

Rollins College's 12th and ninth presidents, Thaddeus Seymour ’80H and Paul Wagner, in 2008. (Photo courtesy Thaddeus Seymour) Rollins College's 12th and ninth presidents, Thaddeus Seymour ’80H and Paul Wagner, in 2008. (Photo courtesy Thaddeus Seymour)

In 1952, Wagner was named executive director of the Chicago-based Film Council of America. Later, he became a vice president at New York public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and presided over the NPO/Task Force in New York City, a group of international public affairs and public relations counsellors. Wagner lived on Fifth Avenue in New York City with his second wife, Jeanette, former president of Estee Lauder International.