Text Box:   Posted on Wed, Nov. 06, 2002

'Daddy Wags' Wagner, Marine vet


YOUNG Jimmy Wagner happened to look out of the window of his classroom at Stella Maris Parochial School in South Philadelphia one cold winter day and saw a janitor working in the schoolyard.

Little Jimmy excused himself and went outside to give the man a hand.

That was the beginning of a lifetime of the most amazing generosity and caring from James R. Wagner that ranged from throwing his jacket over a homeless man in the street to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for children through the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots campaign and similar programs.

Wagner, known to one and all as "Daddy Wags," a Marine veteran of Vietnam who observed the birthday of the Marine Corps every year with a huge party at his Cookie's Tavern on Bigler Street in South Philadelphia, died of a brain tumor Saturday. He was 57 and had homes in South Philadelphia and Clifton Heights.

Daddy Wags didn't like to hear people ask when the Marines were founded. He thought everybody should know the date and the location - Nov. 10, 1775, in the former Tun Tavern on Water Street in Old City.

"Cookie's was the unofficial Tun Tavern," said Common Pleas Judge James M. Lynn, his longtime friend, "He was the kindest, gentlest, most charitable person I have ever known in my life."

Friends lament that he just missed this year's event.

"I think he was trying to live long enough for the party," said his daughter Marion, who now runs the bar. "He lived a lot longer than the doctors said he would, but he couldn't hold on any longer."

Cookie's is known to every Marine in the world, say Wagner's friends. And Daddy Wags is equally renowned.

Wagner, a big, jovial Irishman who loved a good joke, staged his own funeral in 1996, complete with borrowed coffin, on the theory that a person shouldn't have to wait for death to enjoy a good sendoff.

He sat in the coffin, greeting "mourners," sipping his favorite libation, Crown Royal whiskey.

"What a way to die!" he exclaimed. "What a way to die!"

Wagner was a 1963 graduate of St. John Neumann High School, where he was a standout athlete. He was captain of the baseball team and had offers from the Phillies and Detroit Tigers, but decided to enlist in the Marines.

He served two tours in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart.

After working for a time as a used-car salesman at different auto agencies in Springfield, Delaware County, and operating an ambulance service, he bought Cookie's in 1977 from his uncle, William Cook.

He immediately started his annual Marine Corps birthday party. Sometimes the cops had to close off Bigler Street to accommodate the crowds.

Once a helicopter taking Marine brass to the celebration landed in the street.

"The Marine Corps was what he lived for," his daughter said.

Judge Lynn recalled that one night he and Wagner had been out for a few drinks and around midnight, Jimmy took off his shoes and socks and left them on the sidewalk.

"I tried to talk him out of it, but he said somebody might come along who needed them," Lynn said.

Another friend, Stephen L. Britt, a federal prosecutor who was a Marine lieutenant colonel, said, "His jukebox had the Marine Hymn, the Green Berets' song. He was just unbelievable, a human dynamo."

Wagner also is survived by his wife of 43 years, the former Marguerite DeFeo; his mother, the former Marion Cook; two other daughters, Joyce M.R. Carroll and Jaime Noel Wagner; two brothers, Edward and Raymond; a sister, Deborah Wagner, and one grandchild.

Services: 10 a.m. tomorrow at Holy Cross Church, 651 E. Springfield Road, Springfield. Friends may call at 4 today at the O'Leary Funeral Home, 640 E. Springfield Road, Springfield, and at 9 a.m. tomorrow. Burial will be in Ss. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Marple.

Contributions may be made to Toys for Tots Foundation, Box 1947, Quantico, Va. 22134.