Bob Wagner ran at St. Louis Park High School and the University of Minnesota.
“I was one lucky athlete to end up in St. Louis Park,” is how Bob “Wags” Wagner, born in 1946, describes his family’s move from Charles City, Iowa, to the Minneapolis western suburb when he was in 9th grade. In phy ed class, teacher Roy Griak saw the new kid not wearing gym clothes, but ordered, “You’re running anyway.” Bob ended up second in the mile run and would later be recruited to run track and cross county. The result was not necessarily a surprise to Bob—he had won a fistful of ribbons in school races, saying, “I’d beat everybody except my sister [older sister Vicki].”
Inspired as a youth by a book on Glenn Cunningham, a burn victim who starred at Kansas and was a 1936 Olympic silver medalist, Bob says, “I pretty much ran wherever I went.” It led to him biking to Lake Calhoun (now Bde Maka Ska), then running around the lake multiple times in an era when few people ran. Already as a sophomore, Bob placed 8th in the 1962 state cross country meet and he won the title in 1963 at Lake Nokomis and repeated in 1964 at the University of Minnesota (U of MN) golf course.
Bob’s record in state track championships is even better—he was runner-up in the 880-yard run in 1963 and then claimed two one-mile titles: in 1964 with a time of 4:18.9 and eclipsed it with a time of 4:15.1 in 1965 as a senior. St. Louis Park won the state championship as Bob Stein, a future NFL linebacker, joined Bob as a state champion by hurling the discus 171’-11 ¾”, nearly 14 feet further than the runner-up. A memorable race was when the St. Louis Park High School Orioles’ 4 x 880-yard relay team broke 8 minutes with Bob running the anchor leg—the first Minnesota high school relay team known to achieve the lofty goal as they edged Robbinsdale with Tom Heinonen running the final half-mile for the Robins.
“I had good coaches and wanted to please them,” Bob says of Roy Griak, who accepted the head cross country and track and field position at the U of MN in 1963, and Lefty Wright. He also gained invaluable experience running with teammate and future NCAA steeplechase champion Bruce Mortenson. Oriole runners captured five consecutive state championship mile races from 1961-65 with Mortenson taking honors in 1961 and 1962, John Valentine capturing the championship in 1963, and then Bob setting meet records in 1964 and 1965.
Having once been to Albuquerque, New Mexico to watch a track event (with Coach Griak who short-sheeted his bed), Bob accepted an athletic scholarship to the university located there. When Griak—now at the U of MN—learned of it, he quickly contacted Bob and the University of New Mexico track coach and arranged a scholarship for Bob to join the Gophers in 1965.
“I liked to run—I ran seventy to one hundred miles a week—and probably overtrained,” Bob says of his collegiate experience. Still, he was a valued and contributing runner to the Gopher teams—usually placing in the top three in the Big Ten Conference in the mile-run and a reliable runner on the cross country team. In April 1968, Wags was runner-up in the mile run at the Drake Relays in a stellar time of 4:05.4. That fall, the cross country team placed 4th in the NCAA Division I championships with Steve Hoag (“Such a hard worker,” says Wags) leading the way and Wags crossing the line as the #2 Gopher, placing 67th individually and Ed Twomey (Golden Valley, Benilde High School), Tom Page (Edina), and Pat Kelly (St. Paul Monroe) as the other counters.
Graduating with a degree in physical education and health in 1969, Wags married Linda Clark, a vocal and music education major who was a member of the University Chamber Choir, from Rochester, Minnesota. Earning a master’s degree in 1970 at Bemidji State University (BSU), the married couple embarked on an amazing journey as they lived and traveled in Europe, Asia, Colorado, Texas, and several cities in Minnesota as Wags was either fulfilling military service—breaking Olympian Tom O’ Hara’s record for running the mile in combat boots, winning the physical fitness award, and ranking the #1 shot with an M-16 rifle—or teaching. Wags continued running. “I had several good races in Europe that few people know about,” he says. In 1972 Wags ran in the Olympic Trials Marathon, finishing an impressive 13th despite having to change shoes and regaining his stride during the race in a shared triumph by Frank Shorter and Kenny Moore. He stayed in Eugene, Oregon to witness Steve Prefontaine win the 5,000-meter run in an American record time.
A longtime special education teacher, Wags and Linda have lived in a log home in rural Bemidji since 1992. Linda has taught music and sung in operas; she was the vocalist at Roy Griak’s celebration of life service in 2017. Wags visited the coach he highly respected the day before he died. They have three daughters, all registered nurses. A volunteer coach for the BSU women’s running teams for many years, Wags was still running up to 80 miles per week at age 70.
There are many stories Wags is happy to share in addition to an album of articles and race results compiled by his mother in a book titled, “My Son, the Runner.”