Florence Wager, a beloved booster of local causes from parks and recreation to community health and classical music, died at home on Wednesday morning. She was 84. The cause was colon cancer.
Wager was named Clark County’s First Citizen by the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington in 2009. Friends and admirers called her Flossie, and said she was absolutely one of a kind.
“She had an ability to get people focused on community like no one I’ve ever met,” said fellow parks booster Kelly Punteney.
“In 30 years of public service, I’ve never seen anyone like her,” former Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation director David Judd said in 2009. “To put in that much time and intellect and devotion.”
Wager’s activism was long and varied. She threw her support behind the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District, the Vancouver Symphony and YWCA Clark County.
But parks, recreation and green spaces were her greatest passion. When Wager was named First Citizen, the ceremony involved 35 members of the audience standing up — each holding the name of a local park that grew from Wager’s efforts — and four cyclists riding through the carpeted hotel ballroom, representing the many miles of hiking and biking trails that Wager inspired.
Plus, Punteney added, Wager, who lived in the Vancouver Heights area, deserves much behind-the-scenes credit for pushing the city of Vancouver toward making good on its promise of a community center for the east side. Long before the Firstenburg family came through with the money, he said, Florence Wager was there at the front end, pressing the vision toward reality.
“She really took that on and stuck with it till it got built,” Punteney said.
She was such a trailblazer in greening Clark County that the grassroots Parks Foundation christened its annual leadership awards, launched in 2011, the Florence B. Wager awards.
“Volunteering means so much to me,” Wager said in 2009. “You meet people who are bright, creative and innovative. It’s like enlarging my family. I don’t intend to quit.”
Wager was a local girl whose youth shaped her desire to improve this community. She remembered playing in the Esther Short Park wading pool as a child, and was disgusted later on to see the park degenerate into a “trash heap,” she told The Columbian. When Mayor Royce Pollard initiated his campaign to renovate the park, “I was elated,” Wager said — and she chaired the community design committee that planned the park’s rebirth.
“We couldn’t have envisioned the draw it has become,” she concluded.
Wager earned degrees in communications and education from Washington State University in Pullman. She taught school locally for a few years but then moved to San Francisco on a quest for the perfect job in arts administration. She found it as executive director for the San Francisco Symphony Foundation, where she worked for 29 years.
She never married or had children of her own, nephew David Wager said, but her huge extended family included three siblings — brother Duke, who is still alive, and brother John and sister Dorothy Galbraith, both of whom preceded her in death. There are too many local nieces and nephews to count, David Wager said.
“Flossie was such a great person. She was the fun one,” David said. “She was so good-natured. Whenever she came to town to visit us, it was like the circus coming to town. We used to sit out on the porch waiting for her.”
Labors of love
Wager returned to her hometown in the early 1990s. Her community efforts since then included:
• Parks Legacy program: She was a leading proponent for an aggressive construction timeline on 22 new community and neighborhood parks in east Vancouver.
• Greater Clark Parks District: Wager co-chaired the Metropolitan Parks District measures that resulted in dozens of new parks, sports fields, trails, play areas and picnic facilities in the unincorporated county.
• State funding: In 2007, Wager worked closely with late Rep. Bill Fromhold to expand state parks funding.
• Countywide Trail and Bikeway Plan: She chaired the task force that created a master plan for 250 miles of regional bikeways and trails over the next couple of decades.
Wager always paid tribute back to the people — professionals and other volunteers — who worked with her on these labors of love.
“The riches you brought to my life are unbelievable,” Wager said to all her collaborators when accepting her First Citizen award. “I can’t accept this without you. We’ve had great success just because we are a team.”
Just last October, Wager made the paper — sporting an outrageously eye-grabbing witch getup — for her practice of handing out healthy snacks and candy alternatives on Halloween: bottled water, wax vampire fangs, bubbles and neon crazy straws.
“I love Halloween,” she said. “I just want kids to learn that they can choose something other than candy.” Her efforts for community health won her one of the first Community Hero awards handed out by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Punteney said Wager was a big fan of his effort to restore the Weber Arboretum, a historic mansion and greenspace on Southeast Evergreen Highway, and turn it into a collection of small vignette gardens maintained by volunteers. One of Wager’s final wishes, he said, was to see Vancouver’s waterfront trail extended through the property — so that’s what he means to do.
A celebration of Wager’s life will be held at the Weber Arboretum some time after Labor Day, Punteney said. Plans are still firming up.
“She was a great lady,” said Rich Melching, executive director of the Community Foundation. When he spoke to her last week, Melching said, Wager was wishing she’d had more money to give away.
“I told her, you may not have had as much as you’d like, but you influenced so many people,” Melching said. “You gave a lot.”