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Father pays tribute to son, daughter killed in crash

By Steve Huffman
Salisbury Post
Lee Wagner hiked 23 miles Wednesday, hoofing it from outside Charlotte to a site north of China Grove.
The day was warm and humid.
“It was a long walk,” Wagner admitted.
His trek continued Thursday, though the jaunt wasn’t as grueling ó stretching to a point outside Lexington. During the day, Wagner followed U.S. 29 through downtown Salisbury and Spencer.
“I’m just a guy on a walk,” he said.
Wagner is doing more than taking a pleasure stroll. He’s walking in honor of his two children ó Jillian and Lee IV ó who died in a car accident four years ago today.
On Sunday, Wagner will visit the cemetery at Bethesda United Methodist Church in Welcome where his children are buried. His trek began 380 miles ago ó at Starr’s Mill High School in Peachtree City, Ga., where Jillian and Lee were students.
“I’m tracing their final journey,” Wagner said. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Jillian was 18 and Lee 16 when they were killed in an interstate accident in Georgia on May 9, 2004. It was Mother’s Day.
Jillian and Lee were popular, outgoing students with lives of promise stretching before them.
Jillian was a high school senior who planned to attend the University of Georgia that fall. She’d auditioned for “American Idol” shortly before her death, making it to the second round of the competition.
“She didn’t make it to Hollywood,” Wagner said, “but she didn’t make it on the blooper show, either.”
Lee was a high school junior who loved just about all sports. “He was already a better golfer than me,” Wagner said.
Their fatal accident happened when the Jeep in which they were riding flipped out of control and cartwheeled down the interstate’s median.
The Wagners had moved from Davidson County to Peachtree City in 2001. Since Jillian and Lee had attended Starr’s Mill High School as well as North Davidson High School, double funerals were held at churches in both communities.
As any parent who has been through a similar experience can attest, Wagner and his wife, Debbie, were devastated. They mourned and spoke to a counselor who reminded them that 87 percent of couples who lose children wind up divorcing.
“Mark us down in that other 13 percent,” Wagner said he told the counselor. “We feel we’ve come through this, we’ve got a story to tell.”
Eventually the Wagners collected themselves and discussed how they might pay tribute to Jillian and Lee.
“I asked my wife, ‘What’s going to be their legacy?’ ” Wagner said. “Is it going to be just a couple of kids killed on the interstate?”
It has turned out to be considerably more.
Wagner said he and his wife had been saving for their children’s college educations almost from the time they were born. The investment had turned into a nest egg, he said.
So the Wagners turned the money into the Jillian and Lee Wagner Scholarship Fund. The money has gone for a number of purposes.
In addition to providing financial assistance to college-bound students (four such scholarships have been awarded thus far), the money has gone to fund mission trips to Mexico, projects at local churches, aid to families left homeless by Hurricane Katrina and courtyards at Starr’s Mill High School.
“Whatever I think Jillian and Lee would have wanted us to do with the money, we’re trying to do,” Wagner said. “They were loving kids. They would have wanted us to help others.”
Wagner, 55, came up with the idea for his walk (details can be found at www.awalktoremember.org) over the past year.
On weekends in March and April, he met with youth groups at churches around Peachtree City and went on memorial walks with their members.
Along the way, he also shared the story of the deaths of his children and reminded the young people to whom he was speaking of a simple fact.
“I talk to them about choices,” Wagner said. “My children weren’t speeding, weren’t drinking and were wearing their seat belts. They were trying to make all the right choices. Imagine how your odds are changed if you make the wrong choices.”
Wagner calculated the distance he walked during memorial hikes this spring and figured he’d covered about 178 miles. He’d decided he was going to hike from Peachtree City to Bethesda Methodist and opted to deduct the 178 miles he’d already covered.
Wagner estimated that 178 miles would have put him close to Easley, S.C., so that’s where he started his hike to Welcome on April 30. He’s since averaged 17 to 20 miles per day, spending the night at churches or with friends or family members.
Wagner is a fit man, though he admits the hiking has taken a toll on him.
“I can feel it in my hips,” he said, laughing. “It’s age catching up with me.”
Bill Roland is married to Wagner’s cousin and said he still remembers calling Wagner about a business matter the day after the death of his children.
“He said, ‘Bill, my kids were killed yesterday,’ ” Roland said. “I think it’s the most devastating thing I’ve ever been told.”
Roland designed the Walk for Life Web page. He said that since posting it on the Internet on March 3, the site has received 35,000 hits.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself,” Roland said. “There’s just been a tremendous outpouring of support for this family.”
He said he’s witnessed firsthand everything that Wagner and his wife have been through.
“It’s been a real grieving process for Lee,” Roland said. “I think this walk is part of the healing process.”
Wagner wore a T-shirt, shorts and running shoes on his hike through Rowan County. He carried a pack on his back.
Wagner’s T-shirt included pictures of Jillian and Lee and read: “2008 ó A Walk to Remember. Because we’ll never forget.”
Wagner carried a golf club, though he said he didn’t do so to protect himself from dogs.
The club, he said, was Lee’s four-iron. Wagner said he reached into his son’s golf bag and pulled the club before embarking on his adventure.
“I said, ‘Bud, I’m going to carry something I can hold on to,’ ” Wagner said.
As he relayed the story Thursday morning in downtown Salisbury, he momentarily teared up before composing himself.
Wagner is a trucking executive, director of international sales for Boyd Brothers Transportation of Clayton, Ala. His wife is a nurse.
Wagner’s plan is to meet with young people at North Davidson Saturday for a hike around the track there. He said he’s been told that several hundred people might participate in the event that’s scheduled to last from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
At 9:15 Sunday morning, Wagner and a group of fellow walkers will leave from North Davidson en route to Bethesda Methodist, a distance of about 3.5 miles. They plan to visit the cemetery, then participate in the 11 a.m. worship service.
“They’re buried in a plot right beside where we’ll be buried,” Wagner said of the final resting place for Jillian and Lee.
He said the hike has served as a tribute to his children, but it’s also been part of the grieving through which he continues.
“You can’t just sit and mourn forever or you’ll go crazy,” Wagner said. “I don’t know where this journey is going to eventually lead me, only that God is going to take me there.”
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or shuffman@salisburypost.com.

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