Questioning the Locals | Mary Jo Wagner

How do you plan to spend your retirement?

V1 Staff

WHO: Mary Jo Wagner
WHAT: Reporter and host of The West Side for Wisconsin Public Radio
LIVES: Eau Claire’s south side, just inside the Town of Washington
IN THE CITY FOR: 23 years

A celebrated and award-winning local radio personality, Mary Jo Wagner retired from the airwaves on July 2 after 20 years at WPR. She got her start in Illinois, after her music education degree failed to earn her a teaching position, and a family transfer to Eau Claire brought her a part-time job at WAXX/WAYY in the late 80s. In 1990, she took on a position at WPR reporting on education and agriculture. In 2002 the regional public affairs show The West Side got its debut, a program that strove to show both sides of controversial topics like the state budget, the smoking ban, gun rights, bear hunting, and Indian logos.

How do you plan to spend your retirement? In my dreams, a sandy beach with 25 books, latte as needed, and a kayak nearby. Interruptions by grandkids and other thinkers welcome. After that week, I’ll put my voice to work for educational purposes and contribute to groups like the Master Singers, Eau Claire Jazz Festival, the Chippewa Valley Youth Symphony, and UW-Eau Claire. Good friends and good music will play a big part of my retirement renewal.

Of all the on-air interviews you’ve done, which was your favorite? A poignant one with Representative Jeff Wood last fall – done as he looked at a future of dealing with addiction, jail sentences, legislative censure, and financial ruin.

Which were you most nervous for? I was so scared before I hosted a debate at UWEC between the four candidates for governor in 2002 that we would lose control of the crowd if they cheered or booed.

As a teacher, I know education is an issue close to your heart. What do you make of the atmosphere in education right now?  What a shame that nurturing youngsters – the next generation of thinkers and taxpayers – who need to be turned on to reading, problem solving, and hatching ideas are caught in the middle of the caustic, political debate over whether to spend money on things like class size, field trips, and music and art programs.

What frustrates you about the Chippewa Valley? Eau Claire could use a place to lounge/eat/have a glass of wine near the river or a lake – think UW-Madison Memorial Union. That, and there’s so many cultural things to go to I can’t get my lawn mowed.

What sort of economic development would you like to see in our area? I realize infill is important, but something at St. Bede’s could be, too – a college, environmental center, spiritual retreat center, or other training camp that attracts people from all over to this region.

What’s your favorite local festival? Eau Claire Jazz Festival – we are on the big map because of this event. The soloists who curl their gazillion notes around our ears give me goose bumps every year.

Death bed, one meal from a local restaurant, what would it be? Salmon, rice, and vegetables at Mona Lisa’s with a decadent glass of red wine

Describe your last encounter with the police department. Had to call 911 when an older gas pump failed to shut off automatically and gas spewed all over the ground. Employees lacked training in how to handle an environmental and fire hazard. I was washing my car windows while pumping so was at fault for not watching for equipment flaws.

What book, TV show, or movie would you recommend to city council? Sex & the City and its sequel – need a romantic flare to the city’s appeal that attracts high heels and balances the ‘boots’ theme.

What’s your favorite local shop/store? Coffee Grounds – a place that specializes in coffee knows whereof Norwegians were birthed.

Other than WPR, what’s your favorite station and program? Chippewa Valley Community Television/radio and NPR’s Morning Edition 89.7

You’re in a Radio Voice Superiority contest with John Murphy, George House, and Curt St. John. Who’s gonna take the cake? The prize goes to whoever can say “judiciary” four times and get it right without laughing. Geez, it sounds like it’s time for me to get a life.

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