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Meet Red Wagner, the Everyman who rose through the ranks to become one of TVA's most influential planners and leaders.

He was the longest-serving Chairman in TVA history. He oversaw the construction of the agency’s last dams and its first nuclear reactors. Historians claim that he had a greater influence on TVA than anyone else; some people called him Mr. TVA.

His friends called him Red—a suitable nickname for a carrot-topped Wisconsin farm kid. Aubrey Joseph Wagner was born in 1912 into a German Lutheran family in the tiny community of Hillsboro, Wisconsin. Life was hard, especially after Wagner’s father died when the boy was just 7. He and his siblings labored to keep the farm going until their mother sold it a few years later in order to send the four kids to college. Wagner attended the University of Wisconsin, where he studied civil engineering and worked at odd jobs to support himself.

After graduating magna cum laude, he found desk work drawing up plans for the state highway department. He hadn’t been at it long when he got an unexpected letter, an application form for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new project down South. “I believe a college professor of mine had recommended me to them,” he said later.

Going to work for TVA was a big gamble; many didn’t expect Roosevelt’s experiment to last, and Wagner wasn’t sure about it himself. But “I knew I didn’t want to spend my life designing bridges for the Wisconsin Highway Department.”

So in 1934, just one year after the founding of TVA, Wagner drove into Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife, their newborn baby, and less than $25 in his pocket. The family moved into a mill-town neighborhood, and Wagner went to work as an engineering aide. He took the bottom-rung job in stride, enjoying the hiking and camping that came with fieldwork. Attached to the department in charge of navigation and transportation, he spent much of his time along the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Sometimes he took his fishing rod along.

In 1943 Wagner became a full-fledged navigational engineer. After that, his rise within the agency was rapid, especially during the tenure of his friend and ally Chairman Gordon Clapp. He became TVA’s Assistant Manager in 1951, and its General Manager in 1954.

The diplomatic but tough-minded Wagner was the right man for the job. He made powerful friends and impressed his opponents. He pleased conservatives with initiatives designed to make TVA’s power plants financially self-sufficient. Always a planner, Wagner was especially devoted to an undertaking called Tributary Area Development, a TVA effort to help communities in particular tributary watersheds plan their own growth. He sounded early alarms about the dangers of uncontrolled development, which would later be known as suburban sprawl.

Wagner also worried about the fact that young workers were leaving the Tennessee Valley to look for better jobs elsewhere. He pointed out that the Valley had lost 1.5 million people in the two decades after 1940. TVA, he thought, should have a role in reversing that trend.

During a conference at Watts Bar Dam in 1959, he made a speech that resembled a manifesto. TVA hadn’t launched a major project in years; it was time, he said, to start building some dams again. They were to be part of what he called TVA’s “new mission.”

photo of President Kennedy speaking at TVA

President Kennedy, who appointed Aubrey Wagner to the Board, described TVA as one of the nation’s greatest assets and an important weapon in the global struggle against Communism.

In 1961, a newly elected administration in Washington promised a New Frontier, and President John F. Kennedy affirmed his commitment to TVA. That same year he named the activist Wagner to TVA’s Board of Directors. And in 1962, when Herbert Vogel resigned the chairmanship, Kennedy gave Wagner the job.

Wagner hit the ground running, putting TVA to work on building new dams at Normandy and Tellico. Controversial at times, the new projects never lost his support. He was convinced that they were good for the Valley, good for local employment, and good for ratepayers.

Around 1965, he also developed an interest in another kind of power. Wagner was determined to lead TVA into the nuclear age. He proposed the construction of 14 nuclear power plants in the Valley, and succeeded in building Browns Ferry and Sequoyah. Construction on Browns Ferry, TVA’s first nuclear plant, began in 1966. When it went online in 1974, the facility was the largest nuclear plant in the world, and it became the first to generate more than a billion watts of power.

Again, opposition to the new plants was strong in some quarters. Wagner listened to his opponents, but always made it sound like a simple decision: “I saw nuclear as a means of getting continuing power, at lower cost, with less harm to the environment.”

His famous red hair turned white over the years, but his heart stayed in the same place. As he turned 60, he forcefully outlined his philosophy: “Now, as in 1933, TVA is committed to one purpose. All its acts are designed to promote the use of every natural resource to improve the quality of living for the people.”

photo of browns ferry nuclear plant

Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant was the largest in the world when it began operation in 1974. As Chairman, Aubrey Wagner initiated the development of TVA’s nuclear program.

But Wagner knew when his work was done. In 1978, at the end of his second term as Chairman, he was 66. “I’m going fishing,” he said. As he left the building after his last board meeting, TVA employees gave him a spontaneous cheer.

For the rest of his life, Aubrey Wagner remained an active and vocal advocate of TVA, which he called “the greatest agency in the world.” More than a year after he retired, he tore himself away from fishing on Watts Bar Reservoir long enough to watch proudly as Tellico Dam was put into service. He died in Knoxville in 1990.

Today only longtime TVA employees remember cheering Aubrey Wagner, the man who rose from their own ranks to lead them during a momentous era. But some locals remember him well.

Near TVA’s Knoxville offices is a kosher delicatessen called Harold’s, which has been popular with TVA employees ever since Harold Shersky opened the place in 1948. Wagner was a regular at Harold’s, and an autographed photograph of him is on display behind the counter. At 83, the deli’s owner still remembers Aubrey Wagner well. “He wasn’t uppity,” Shersky says. “If he was walking down the street and happened to see you, he’d cross over and say hello. That’s the kind of man he was.”


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