Dave Wagner, author, historian and former Arizona Republic politics editor, dies at 78

Dave Wagner, a former Arizona Republic politics editor, died on Feb. 21, 2023, in Tempe at the age of 78.
Dave Wagner, a former Arizona Republic politics editor, died on Feb. 21, 2023, in Tempe at the age of 78.

Dave Wagner, a former Arizona Republic politics editor, historian, author and leader of the 1977 newspaper strike at The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, died on Feb. 21 in Tempe at the age of 78.

Described by those who knew him as a passionate newsman and progressive intellectual with a terrific sense of humor, Wagner began his more than 30-year-long journalism career in 1966 at The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, against the backdrop of the civil rights and anti-war movements before moving to The Arizona Republic, where he worked as a politics editor and reporter until his retirement in 2000.

"He really cared about truth and justice," said Grace Wagner, Dave Wagner's wife. "When he retired, he wrote books. He always had projects, he was always a self-starter, he was always working, he loved to read and he loved to do the research.”

Early years and a fateful trip to Germany

Wagner was born on July 3, 1944, in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania. He lived in the heart of the Amish country with his family until age 7 when his father took a teaching job in Bradford, Pennsylvania. He attended high school in Bradford and participated in the school's band. After graduation, Wagner spent a year abroad in Germany through an international Methodist Christian youth exchange program.

Among the other American students participating in the program was Wagner's future wife, Grace. The pair met at an exchange meeting at Drew Methodist University prior to leaving for Germany.

"Everybody was thrilled to be part of the program, but we hit it off real well," Grace said. "He was in Erlangen and I was in Heidenheim, but we did get to visit a little bit, and when we came back home, it was the civil rights movement, it was really building.”

The pair stayed in touch as Wagner began his first year of study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Grace finished her last year of high school in California. Grace joined David at Madison and they were married on June 17, 1966.

Wagner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature in 1969. He began his journalistic career as the poetry editor for the alternative newspaper Connections, an alternative publication founded by students in the spring of 1967 to focus on local artistry and content during the anti-war movement. The progressive journalist also worked as an editor for the alternative news weekly Madison Kaleidoscope, which had a short publishing run that ended in 1971.

In 1966, Wagner began working for The Capital Times, defined at the time by its anti-war idealism and progressive journalistic practices, after he was offered a position on the police beat by Elliott Maraniss, an investigative journalist and left-wing labor activist who joined the paper in 1957 and was known for mentoring many young journalists.

Wagner did not spend much time on the police beat, moving quickly to his cultural critic work reviewing local music, theater and films. His sharp eye for artistic critique was influenced by the time he spent in Germany after high school, having lived with a professor who was a pianist and philosopher, Grace said.

In 1972, Wagner took a hiatus from his position at The Capital Times to teach at the Cambridge-Goddard Graduate School in Boston, Massachusetts, joined by Grace and their 4-year-old son, Ben. The following year, the family moved to Erlanden, Germany, for Wagner to study philosophy at the graduate level.

Upon returning to Madison, Wagner resumed his former job at The Capital Times. Shortly after, the historic 1977 Capital Times newspaper strike began, led by Wagner and others who unionized at the paper. Grace remembered the strike to be both demanding and rewarding, recalling the wide-spread support garnered from the progressive anti-war culture in Madison.

"It was very difficult figuring out how to conduct that strike. He was working with the lawyers, with the guild, with the unions and putting out connections in order to let the public know what the strike was about," Grace said. "It was a very large picture of what kind of reforms were necessary first coming out of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement."

A 'journalist's journalist' in Arizona

After The Capital Times strike, Wagner worked as the editorial page editor for The Waukesha Freeman before moving to Arizona to work at The Phoenix Gazette, where he was city editor. The Gazette and Arizona Republic staffs merged in 1995.

Wagner's history of working for alternative newspapers and leading The Capital Times strike brought a unique sense of intellectualism and a belief in fighting for the little guy, said John D'Anna, a former editor and reporter at The Republic who worked with Wagner when he was a reporter on the politics desk.

"Dave was progressive before progressive was a thing," D'Anna said. "He was always fighting for the little guy. That was something he brought to The Republic, which was really important."

Calling Wagner the "eye of the storm" of Arizona politics, D'Anna recalled the pair working on many investigative political stories together. One of them was the federal criminal fraud trial of former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington and his subsequent removal from office.

"If you go into history books about the turbulent 1960s and early '70s, he’s mentioned in them," said D'Anna, referring to Wagner's first-line coverage of the 1970 bombing of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's U.S. Army Math Research Center. "He was the real deal."

D'Anna remembered the pair working diligently alongside Kris Mayes, current Arizona attorney general and former Arizona Republic reporter, to cover John McCain's first run for president in 2000 and the Straight Talk Express.

"Dave Wagner was a journalist’s journalist ― old school in all the best ways," said Mayes in a statement. "I was so fortunate that he was one of my first editors, and can still hear his voice in my head telling me to dig deeper into a story or find another source, when I think about my time at the Arizona Republic covering politics."

Mayes said Wagner was in the thick of editing, advising and relishing the thrill of covering one of the biggest, most interesting campaigns in American history during McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.

"Dave was fearless and funny, and he will be missed," Mayes said.

Wagner's fearless sense for newsgathering and sharp humor were echoed by Pat Flannery, a state Capitol politics reporter at the Phoenix Gazette who met Wagner while he was an editor on the politics desk at The Arizona Republic.

"I think every reporter who worked for him would say the same thing, that they enjoyed working with him because he was so passionate about the work," Flannery said. "He had a terrific sense of humor and he liked to laugh. He had a laugh that everybody recognized in the newsroom.”

Flannery recalled working through the night to cover Arizona elections, saying the team would stay all night to get the most complete election results, a process Wagner loved.

A life in words after journalism

After his retirement form The Arizona Republic in 2000, Wagner combined his love of film with his scholarly air for history to write a series of books about the Hollywood blacklist with co-author Paul Buhle.

Among the most widely read are "A Very Dangerous Citizen," published in 2002, a detailed biography of Abraham Lincoln Polonsky, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. "Tender Comrades," published in 1997, tells the stories of Hollywood blacklist survivors. Other works include "Radical Hollywood" and "Hide in Plain Sight."

Wagner also authored "The Politics of Murder," an investigation of the Goldwater family's connections to the mob from the 1930s to the 1980s in Arizona. D'Anna said the novel is an example of Wagner's exceptional investigative ability to draw connections, one of which being that Barry Goldwater and his brother rubbed elbows with mobsters, the same mobsters who, without a whole lot of degrees of separation, killed journalist Don Bolles.

"He was really just thrilled that he got to be a writer and make a living as a writer really," Grace said.

Wagner is survived by his wife, Grace; his daughter, Anna; and his six grandchildren, Nathaniel, 26, Madeleine, 25, Abigail, 20, Seraphina, 11, Lily, 20, and Diego, 20.

Grace fondly recounted memories of cross-country road trips with Dave and "becoming Arizonans" with their grandkids as they road-tripped and camped throughout the state.

The family is making funeral plans to honor his life in a service next week that will include family and close friends.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Former Arizona Republic politics editor Dave Wagner dies at 78