‘Choppy’ Wagner memorial tribute almost sold out|Book traces career of beloved Pam Pack coach

Published 9:11 am Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lifestyles & Features Editor

The memorial edition of a book celebrating a legendary local sports figure is almost sold out.
The inventory of “The Coach: J.G. (Choppy) Wagner … a Legend and a Loved Man” is down to just a couple dozen copies, the sale of which provides scholarships to deserving Washington High School students, according to Milton Parker, who spearheaded the book project.
Recipients of the scholarship are chosen based on good character and good academics — “an all-around good person,” Parker said. The scholarships have been awarded for four years.
So if you don’t have a copy yet, now is the time to get one before they’re gone, Parker said. The book is $25 and can be purchased by calling Parker at 252-717-3711.
The book was published about two years ago, Parker said, and the response was overwhelming. It shines the spotlight on Wagner, longtime coach and teacher at Washington High School, with biographical information and tributes written by friends, former students and players. The book is richly illustrated with photos, and copies of newspaper clippings trace his illustrious career. Wagner died in 2005.
Among those working on the book project were Bartow Houston, John Morgan and Dr. Mike Moore, Parker said. Many of the testimonies were provided by former Pam Pack players, and others were eager to share their memories of Wagner, as well.
“My daddy loved his boys, said Becky Wagner Ward of her late father. “They were like sons to him. My dad never had a son — even years later he would say, ‘You won’t believe who called me.’”
Parker, Ward and Ramona Cayton, Wagner’s stepdaughter, recently gathered for a check presentation for the scholarship fund. They also used that time to share their memories of “Choppy” Wagner.
Born in Mountain City, Tenn., Wagner attended Wake Forest University, where he played football. A knee injury ended Wagner’s playing days but not his love of the sport.
After graduating in 1938, he went to work as head football coach and athletic director at Warsaw High School. In 1941 Wagner was hired at Washington High School, and his students and players say to this day that his presence helped shape their young lives.
World War II interrupted Wagner’s teaching and coaching career; he served in the United States Navy from 1942 to 1946. He then returned to Washington High School. He led the Pam Pack until 1968, amassing an impressive 153-73-12 record. He continued to be a presence at WHS even after he was no longer actively coaching, serving as athletic director and assistant principal until the mid-1970s.
Numerous honors came his way. He was eastern North Carolina’s Coach of the Year in 1958, Shrine Bowl head coach and president of the N.C. Coaching Association, of which he was a life member. Wagner was also inducted into the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
Wagner’s personal life was as fulfilling as his professional one. In 1948 he married Irene Elizabeth Albertson Sawyer, becoming father to her daughter, Ramona. In 1953 another daughter, Rebecca Elizabeth, joined the family. Ramona has one son and Becky is mother to four children.
On Aug. 31, 1990, the ultimate tribute was paid to J.G. “Choppy” Wagner — the new stadium at Washington High School was dedicated in his honor. Former players turned out in force to help their coach celebrate the occasion.