Written by Katie Rosenberg
Romey Wagner was shaped early on, growing up in a family of 15. Being part of a family of that size can be chaotic at times, but there are several benefits to growing up in a full house:
- Kids from large families tend to be good at building relationships. Mom and Dad can’t possibly mediate every sibling dispute, so kids need to learn how to get along, how to bounce back after a disagreement, and how to share and work together.
- Children in big families learn to recognize differences in skills and personalities and pull the best from each person to get things done — an early lesson in leadership and teamwork.
- Kids from big families may fight, but they’re also quick to defend a sibling from a bully or to comfort each other after a hard day. Learning to rely on a support system to get through tough times builds resilience.
Read on and you’ll see how Romey’s life choices were clearly shaped by his early family life . . .
Marathon County Board Supervisor Romey Wagner credits growing up in a big family in rural Wisconsin with first igniting his entrepreneurial spirit. The District 2 Supervisor was born in Edgar and grew up alongside 12 siblings.
“My dad would tell us, ‘If there is a job that you would be willing to pay someone else to do, try getting it done yourself. Even if you only succeed 50% of the time, that’s 50% you don’t have to pay for.’”
Two days after he graduated from high school, Romey left for the Marine Corps. He spent 4 years in the service, including stints overseas during the Vietnam War. He said that he decided to enlist because that was the only way he thought he’d get his college education paid for. When he returned home, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin – Marathon County and was grateful that the G.I. Bill paid for not only his education but also his rent and transportation.
“I feel that I got a better education for life in the Marine Corps. I wasn’t ready for college at 18. I was one of those 95-pound wrestlers in high school. But I also found when I did get out after 4 years, everybody else in college seemed very immature.”
On the Friday I stopped by his office at Wausau’s Entrepreneurial and Education Center to interview him, he had just hung up a piece of art made by his brother Mark, whose display was featured at the Woodson Art Museum earlier this month.
His whole office is stuffed with memories — from photos of his family to awards to a traditional Maasi milk and blood gourd. The gourd was something he picked up on one of his many humanitarian trips to Kenya.
Romey said that he had an epiphany around age 50. It was right after he had retired from upper management at UPS:
“I worked 14 hours a day. I was a corporate jerk. I got on airplanes Monday morning at 6 a.m. and flew to Atlanta and came back on Friday nights for a couple of years. After I retired, I was exploring how to help people. I stumbled on this humanitarian group. The fellow that hooked me up was [Marathon County Agriculture Extension Director and later Marathon County Board Supervisor] Leo Martin, God rest his soul. Leo was an amazing mentor for me.”
When Romey found out that the death rate among kids in a specific region in Kenya was over 80%, he knew he needed to do something. He and his friend Don Ryder decided that they would drill wells.
At his peak, he was taking 3 or 4 humanitarian trips a year. Because of the work that Romey assisted with, 65,000 people in Kenya are getting clean water each day.
Romey passed along his passion for making the world a smaller place to his 3 children. While his kids were in high school, he brought them along on humanitarian trips. When his children were in college, he and his wife Lisa strongly encouraged them to study abroad.
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Romey’s daughter Megan became the first Peace Corps volunteer in a remote area of the Guyana rain forest. (The story he told me about what it took for him to travel to visit his daughter there rivals something from The Amazing Race!)
Romey has a knack for finding solutions to multiple problems at once. Ever restless, he decided to start a business. That’s when he found the former Wausau Incubator and started a manufacturing business. He was looking for ways to keep building materials out of the landfill.
“We were tearing down buildings in this town and taking the wood to Jamaica in the mountains and building new buildings. Peoples State Bank that was taken down here on Stewart [Avenue], years ago — we [used the materials from it to build] 2 schools and a few other things. Now there are schools in Jamaica up in the mountains that don’t have electricity, but they have this beautiful paneling.
I noticed in commercial buildings that there was all the conduit that electrical goes through — it all went to the landfill. So, a friend of mine invented little buildings and we started making greenhouses. Then people started buying the greenhouses for ice shanties because it was warm inside. In the developing countries, we used the conduit to make outdoor toilets.”
Romey also holds several patents for adult tinker toys and puzzles.
Not every one of his business ideas has worked out, but he says that he learned more from the one that failed than he did from the ones that actually worked out. He started talking to other entrepreneurs, asking questions, and trying to help them. Romey says that his nosiness at Wausau Incubator earned him a reputation:
“About 11 years ago, Harry Bourquin was running the business incubator and wanted to stay home with his wife who was in hospice. He told the board they should hire me to run the place.”
Over the last decade, he’s seen the incubator grow. It’s now the Entrepreneurial and Education Center, located at 100 N. 72nd Ave. in Wausau in a building made possible by federal economic development grants and built to help budding businesses succeed.
Romey has been instrumental in helping 370 Limited Liability Companies get off the ground in the last decade.
His signature effort is the Entrepreneurial Bootcamp, an intensive 2-week program funded by Marathon County in which attendees learn the essentials of starting or growing a business. Twice a year, Romey recruits instructors from accounting, marketing, legal, and other fields to help students hone their ideas into business plans. He says the most important lesson students learn is confidence:
“Someone validated their idea for a business. They talked about it amongst other entrepreneurs. They didn’t have to worry about anyone stealing it.
…Confidence. It’s something that we really don’t talk enough about. When you’re in the bootcamp with other people, listening to a lawyer and an accountant, you get confidence in your idea. One thing that owners really need to have is confidence. You also have to have the confidence in yourself to admit to yourself when you don’t have the answers and to know where to get them. That’s why I always tell them, ‘Bring me your concerns before they turn into your problems. Problems are going down the drain. Concerns you can look for outs.’”
Despite his wildly popular program, Romey is still looking for ways to expand into other communities. He’s currently working with the Hmong Chamber of Commerce to develop a course specifically for the Hmong community.
* * *
Romey Wagner has had quite a journey in life:
- Graduating high school in Edgar, Wisconsin, only to enlist in the Marine Corps and serve on the other side of the globe during the Vietnam War,
- Rising to the upper echelons of management in a major corporation, and
- Finally finding his passion — helping others — whether it’s digging wells in Africa or assisting community members with starting their own businesses or serving for more than a decade on the Wausau City Council, various non-profit boards, and now the Marathon County Board of Supervisors.
Soon Romey will be starting a new chapter in his life. He promised his wife that he’d retire when he was 70, which is now only 2 years away. Hard to say what his life then will include, but it will likely be reflective of his strong start in life as part of a large family in rural Marathon County.
Marathon County Board Supervisor | District 1
Katie Rosenberg is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 1. She is passionate about engaging the community and is active on social media and in organizing neighborhood constituent meetings with her Wausau City Council counterpart, Alderperson Pat Peckham. In her free time, you can find Katie enjoying the outdoors with her husband on bike, on roller skates, and in trail shoes. She also enjoys attending all manner of political events, traveling the world, and cooking up a mean vegetarian soup. Email Katie Rosenberg.
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