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Beloved Professor of Trombone, Irvin Wagner, Mourned by OU Community

by Madonna

The University of Oklahoma community is mourning the loss of a cherished educator and musician, Irvin Wagner, who passed away on September 15 at the age of 86 due to lung cancer. Wagner’s life was marked by a profound dedication to music and teaching, leaving an indelible impact on countless students and colleagues.

Wagner’s journey into the world of music began at the tender age of 10, during a Christmas shopping excursion with his parents. Enchanted by a trombone displayed in a store window, he discovered his lifelong passion.

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Hailing from a small Kansas county, Wagner’s dedication and talent propelled him to become a founding member of the Oklahoma Brass Quintet and the conductor of the OU Trombone Choir. Remarkably, he held the distinguished position of Professor of Trombone at OU, a testament to his exceptional contributions to the world of music education.

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Karen Wright, Wagner’s youngest daughter, fondly remembers her father’s unwavering passion for music and his enthusiastic support for his students’ performances. She acknowledges that following in his footsteps as the professor of trombone at OU would be a formidable task, given his substantial legacy.

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Wagner’s impact extended beyond the classroom, inspiring and assisting not only students but also his family. Janet Gorton, his middle daughter, recalls him as a rare individual whose life, passion, and vocation were wholly aligned. His profound positivity, humor, and boundless energy left a lasting impression on those who knew him.

A self-proclaimed “do-er,” Wagner fearlessly pursued his dreams and accomplished everything he set his sights on. His childhood, surrounded by music, played a pivotal role in shaping his destiny. Family gatherings featured his sister on the accordion, his mother on the guitar, and his father on the harmonica, collectively performing gospel quartets that ignited his love for music.

Gorton reminisces about the magical moment when Wagner first laid eyes on the trombone in a store window, a moment that set the course for his life’s journey. In high school, Wagner straddled dual roles as both an offensive and defensive lineman for the football team and a member of the high school band, ultimately opting for a career in music.

After graduating from McPherson College in Kansas in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in music education, Wagner married his wife, JoAnn Bielefeldt, later that year. Their enduring love spanned 63 years until Bielefeldt’s passing in 2021. Gorton acknowledges her mother’s pivotal role in enabling Wagner to pursue his musical career. The unique schedule of a musician, with evening rehearsals and weekend commitments, demanded understanding and support from his spouse.

The couple raised three daughters: Brenda Wagner, Karen Wright, and Janet Gorton. Wagner’s pursuit of excellence led him to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he studied under the renowned Emory Remington, a distinguished figure in the world of brass instruments.

Following the completion of his master’s degree in 1961, Wagner commenced his teaching career at McPherson College before returning to Rochester to earn his doctorate in trombone performance and pedagogy in 1968. Subsequently, he joined the faculty at Louisiana State University as a brass instructor before making his mark at OU in 1969 as the institution’s first, and only, trombone professor in its history.

Brian Dobbins, associate professor of tuba and euphonium, fondly recalls his first meeting with Wagner in 2002 when auditioning for his job at OU. Their collaboration began in 2003, and Dobbins considers himself fortunate to have crossed paths with him. Wagner was not only dedicated to helping students enhance their musical skills but also to ensuring they cherished and enjoyed the music they played.

Described as one of the nicest individuals one could ever encounter, Wagner consistently uplifted his students and colleagues, never resorting to criticism. His teaching philosophy transcended the classroom, as he strived to shape his students into better musicians and better people.

Karen Wright attests to her father’s unwavering support for his students, as he attended various band and orchestra concerts on campus to back his studio’s aspiring musicians. On game days, he could often be found with the Pride of Oklahoma for warm-ups.

Wagner’s contributions to OU were profound. He earned recognition as a David Ross Boyd Professor and Regents Professor of Trombone during his tenure. In 2021, he was bestowed with the President’s Award by the Oklahoma Music Educators Association.

Beyond academia, Wagner’s musical talent graced some of the world’s most prestigious stages. He performed for four U.S. presidents and had the honor of playing for Pope John Paul II on multiple occasions. He was a devoted member of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, the conductor of the OU Trombone Choir, and a founding member of the Oklahoma Brass Quintet.

As the OU community grieves the loss of this remarkable musician and educator, colleagues and students alike hope to carry forward his legacy. Wagner’s enduring love for music and his commitment to nurturing talent are values they aspire to preserve.

Irvin Wagner is survived by his three daughters: Brenda, Janet, and Karen, as well as his four grandchildren: Joshua, Jayson, Lucas, and Sarah. He is preceded in death by his wife, JoAnn, his parents, Orval and Florence Wagner, and his sister, Velva. A memorial service to honor his life and contributions is scheduled for the spring of 2024.

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