One might imagine police officer Debbie Wagner, judging by her musical tastes, as a boring sort. After all, she enjoyed watching the “Lawrence Welk Show” as a youngster and still watches the vintage reruns today. And she’s been taking her Geritol “…since I was 16,” she said with a grin, “and people look at me funny.”
Debbie Wagner with her mother Jane Lehman
Those two habits might even qualify her as having a “Greatest Generation” bent, though she is far younger than that group. You get the idea she wouldn’t do anything too bold because she is so sensitive and doesn’t want to “rock the boat.” But you’d be wrong, because in a respectful, upbeat, and energetic way, she moves others to do good things–changing mind-sets in her community, especially in the way people think about their local police.
Debbie’s huge and supporting network of colleagues and friends who have participated in the Lexington Citizen Police Academy (LCPA), which she coordinates, would say she is in no way boring. They’d consider her a smashing barrel of fun and marvel how she adds a touch of excitement to all she does.
And wow, does she inspire!
Reva Grantham, a graduate of the 32nd LCPA class in 2008, called her a “multi-tasker, safety conscious, a people person, compassionate… .” She continued by saying that Debbie “wants everyone on this planet to excel in a good and positive way, and she is willing to set the example and lead the way on self-improvement for anyone who so wants to improve his or her life.”
Now some 14 years in existence, the LCPA continues to thrive, much to Wagner’s credit. The informational law enforcement program consists of a three-hour night class held once per week over a 12-week period, with three sessions per year. Another “master class,” for graduates, is held at the first of the year.
“The main purpose is to get citizens to walk in our shoes,” said the petite, blond-haired Wagner. “We’re more about ‘why’ the police force does something than ‘how.’”
People learn to see the local police force in a different, more positive light. Many have decided, through the program’s influence, to pursue a law enforcement career. The Lexington Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association has won the nation’s best award in 2006 and 2010. Many help along the way, but Debbie Wagner is the driving power source. For that and more she was recently honored as one of “100 Kentucky Women of Distinction” by the Girl Scouts of Wilderness Road on their 100th anniversary.
Police colleague Randi Rowady, a former president of the LCPAAA, said that without Wagner’s influence in starting LCPA, “…my world would be very different. One person really can change the world, and Debbie has changed the lives of so many people for the better. She gives and gives and just when you think she can’t give anymore, she gives again!”
Topics in LCPA include patrol procedures, emergency response, narcotics and vice investigations, accident reconstruction and a host of other items. The presenters, often police officers but not exclusively, are open for follow-up questions. “And they sometimes stay there until midnight – ’til the last question is answered,” said Debbie.
Graduates of the program have established an association that regularly meets, eats, and encourages each other to spread the good word about LCPA – its educational value, the way it draws people together, and the sheer fun of the program. And nearly always, the dynamic coordinator will come up in friendly conversation.
“I am always amazed at the start of a new class when she remembers everyone’s name,” said Wanda Lutts, a member of the association. “I have heard she stays up nights memorizing their pictures from their name tags, but that’s just the start. She remembers all kinds of personal stuff to really make everyone feel special. She is one of a kind.”
Debbie’s penchant for being around high-energy camaraderie likely began back in her school days at Newport High School, in Northern Kentucky. She played the French horn and trumpet. “Playing in the band was a very disciplined situation and I enjoyed being a part of a group,” she said.
She also was positively influenced by a psychology teacher at the school, and Debbie envisioned herself making a career in that field. As a police officer and specializing in community outreach, she actually has done so, as the “family” dynamics of the LCPA demonstrate. “Many of the participants … that’s all they have, the people who care in the group,” she said.
Again, much of the goodwill there can be attributed to Debbie. “She says ‘I love you’ more than any person I have ever heard and there are a lot of people out there who rarely, if ever, hear those three words,” said Grantham.
Debbie’s career as a Lexington police officer started in a challenging way in the summer of 1979.
“My first job (on patrol) was interesting, especially starting my first week with a murder on Deweese Street,” Debbie explained. She was one of only 19 females on the force then, but it was, she said, no problem. “I never thought about that,” she said, “and I can’t ever remember any kind of problem associated with it.”
Debbie graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s. degree in law enforcement. She started out in patrol downtown, often working the night shift. She then moved into the traffic section where she managed the Community Development Block Grant, trained new safety officers and performed traffic assignments investigating accidents and running radar. After 17 years, her duties changed, putting her on a far different life path. The next 16 years were spent coordinating the LCPA — probably Wagner’s most natural job position.
Besides the LCPA, she found (or they found her) other avenues for involvement. The DARE 911 Police Rock and Roll Band, with manager and singer Debbie Wagner vitally involved, performed “concerts” and conducted art and music contests in schools all over the state from 1992 to 2005.
“We raised our own money,” Debbie said, “and really worked hard. The kids loved it. We did the music and art contests for them to have a project and to feel important.”
Debbie and the band members practiced several hours, one time per week. One wonders how she carved out the time, had the energy …but then, again, it’s Debbie Wagner we’re discussing here.
And there are other endeavors that Debbie has enthusiastically embraced along the way. She assisted Father Robert Murphy for 20 years with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program at her local church, Christ the King, in Lexington. Along with her husband, John, the couple acts as caregivers in their home for her mother, who is in her 90s – and still attends her daughter’s meetings. “Mom is like ‘Queen of LCPA,’ Debbie said. “Everyone just loves her there.”
She has done committee work with the Tanbark Neighborhood Association, where she lives. She has served voluntarily with the Outreach Committee of the Greater Lexington Apartment Association, Kids to Kamp Radiothon, United Way, a folk group at Christ the King and other community ventures.
As a change of pace and purely for amusement, Debbie and her husband enjoy decorating their house for the Halloween season, and it’s becoming a bigger deal every year, attracting many curiosity seekers. Their house, dressed in its Halloween best, was voted the nation’s “Most Spirited Halloween House” on NBC’s Today Show in 2008. It was a complete surprise to the Wagners. Soon after, show personalities Hoda and Kathie Lee told the nation on that Friday morning their Lexington home had been awarded, John and Debbie Wagner drank a victory toast of Diet Ale-8-1 soft drink, then quickly returned to working on props in their front yard.
“Every year there is something different we add,” she said, “and people love things that move.” And that has included a Michael Jackson live action figure with his trademark glove, among other fun items.
Looking back at Debbie’s career in police work, certainly the Flight 5191 plane crash at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport in August 2006, which killed 40 people, was memorable — and difficult for Debbie. She worked for two days in the somber aftermath of the crash, logging in and out those individuals necessary to recover the crash victims and support the investigation.
Within the realm of her professional actions during that period, she derived strength from her deep moral compass, her sense of religious faith. “It was hard for everyone,” she said. “I said a prayer for everyone in the crash…someone’s loved one.”
For police officer Debbie Wagner, an uplifting way around the people she sees daily will always be immediately apparent. She may have “old” interests, but she helps others feel renewed. Her life is exciting, in no way boring.
And, yes, she assuredly does rock the boat … but in the nicest, most sensitive way possible: by example.
To read more of Steve Flairty’s Everyday Heroes stories, click here.
You might also be interested in reading: Girl Scouts of Wilderness Road to honor 100 Ky. Women of Distinction on 100th birthday and Living honorees to be celebrated Friday as Girl Scouts’ 100 Ky. Women of Distinction.
Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, due to be released in early 2013. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores. Or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)