Florence Wagner | Senior Spotlight
March 4, 2013 · Updated 9:39 AM
By Gretchen Wing
There’s an empty house in the Hamlet which gives Florence Wagner mixed feelings. She bought it following the death of her husband Jackson, fearing that her own health was deteriorating too fast to stay up on Whiskey Hill.
“I did what they say you shouldn’t do, make a major decision within a year of your husband’s death,” she says.
But so far, Florence has not found herself ready to leave the house that Jack designed, permeated as it is with memories.
Florence met Jack on a beach in San Francisco in the late 1950s. They were both watching, separately but with equal amusement, a local lady setting herself up for “sunbathing” on the chilly beach with repeated trips up and down the cliff stairs for mattress, pillows, books and beach umbrella. When the wind seized the umbrella, Florence and Jack both came to the rescue. And talked. And set up a date.
The next day Florence called her mom and told her, “I’ve met the man I’m going to marry.”
Did Jack tell his mother the same thing about Florence?
“No, he told me, ‘I’m not getting married again.’ He’d been married twice.”
But Florence changed his mind.
San Francisco represented one more in a series of westward steps for Florence. Starting from East Orange, New Jersey, where she survived polio at age two, she left for Ann Arbor to earn her Bachelor of Arts in nursing from the University of Michigan, then on to California to work. So moving around with Jack came easily. When he finished his Ph.D. in neuro-anatomy, the couple went to Oxford, England for his post-doc, then settled in Houston, where Jack taught at the Baylor Medical School.
Ready to extend their family (beyond Jack’s two children from a previous marriage), Florence and Jack found biology uncooperative, so in the mid-60s they adopted two baby girls, less than a year apart. In 1970, Jack decided to enter medical school himself, so money got a little tight and Florence went back to work as a nurse. For three years she worked full-time while caring for two little girls and doing 100 percent of the housework and finances. But that was their agreement from the beginning, and nothing more than Florence expected. And Jack made it up to her.
Florence had never been wild about moving to Texas, but “Jack bribed me with horses,” she says. She had always adored them. Sure enough, once Jack got his MD., in the early 70s, the couple acquired not just a horse, but an entire horse farm: 75 acres outside College Station, Texas; a house and barn Jack designed himself; and as many as 28 Arabians. While Jack helped to found the medical school at Texas A & M, Florence traded nursing for horse training. She took special delight in halter-breaking the young ones: “I used all verbal commands, I almost never used a whip.”
She rode, showed Western Pleasure, hosted Jack’s students for barbecues, and shared her love for horses with the girls. One daughter still lives on that farm.
Poor balance and joints, a legacy of polio, required Florence to give up riding after about ten years, to focus on training. But in the mid-80s, just as she turned 50, another health scare stalked Florence: breast cancer. She faced the disease head-on, with radical surgery and radiation. “Yes, that was a wonderful 50th year,” she laughs. But the cancer has stayed away.
In the late 80s, the Wagners were introduced to the San Juans through Wayne Fowler, a friend of Jack’s, who flew them around in his plane. After a picnic with a “magnificent sunset,” they chose Whiskey Hill – nearly bare of houses then – as their vacation home site. Several years of Lopez summers followed, then Jack retired and the couple moved here full-time. Florence dived into volunteer work at the library, the Health Fair, and in church wreath sales. She also knitted baby afghans for an Indian reservation in South Dakota. Jack passed away in 2010, but Florence keeps herself active.
She continues to knit, and currently serves on the Hamlet House board. She also bakes chocolate chip cookies for the EMTs’ weekly meetings, out of gratitude for their “wonderful” care of Jack.
For now, when Florence and Jack’s four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren visit, they come to the photograph-and-art-filled house on Whiskey Hill.
“Lopez is their peace haven,” Florence says.
But when the time comes to move, the Hamlet house stands ready to receive not only Florence, but her trove of memories of a life “truly blessed” with a 51-year marriage – “a great love story.” The space may be small, but Florence will make those memories fit.