Folks who know Geraldine Wagner aren’t surprised to find a 6-foot crocodile reclining on the bed in her guest room. After all, a 4-foot giraffe, sporting a sombrero resides in her kitchen, and a life-size tiger rests in front of the fireplace.
The collection of stuffed animals reflects Wagner’s sense of fun and whimsy.
“I guess I never grew up because I have a lot of stuffed animals,” said Wagner, 88. “I never had any as a kid growing up on a farm in Montana. We had live animals, instead.”
Wagner is what some might call a late bloomer. She married young, raised three children, and when the kids left home she discovered her own hidden talents.
“At 40 I bought myself my first guitar, a blue Fender electric, and asked my neighbors to teach me how to play it,” she recalled. “It was October, 48 years ago, and it was the best decision I ever made. I still play that guitar.”
Indeed, she also plays the keyboard, bass pedal, ukulele, accordion and the banjo-uke.
Her younger brother was a professional musician and Wagner had always wanted to play.
“But my kids came first,” she said.
Her investment in that Fender paid off in a long musical career that she launched at the Deer Park Eagles Lodge years ago.
“I was the secretary of the auxiliary and one Friday night they didn’t have a band,” Wagner recalled. “So, I offered to play. Before the night was over the manager hired me, and I played every weekend for six straight months.”
Wagner sings and plays the music she loves best – classic country – and has been part of many bands over the years, traveling across the region to play at fraternal clubs, retirement homes and community centers.
“Before the pandemic hit I had three bands,” she said.
Sweet Memories, Norm and Gerry and Sweet Variety had regular bookings, and Wagner misses performing.
“People who like music are happy people,” she said. “Everyone is smiling and dancing.”
Dancing is how she met her finance, Wayne Beal Sr. The couple have been together four years.
“We were dancing three nights a week until COVID,” Wagner said.
Thankfully, she has another passion that has kept her busy during this time.
In 1965, Wagner worked as a teletype perforator operator for The Spokesman-Review. Every day as she drove to work down Monroe Street, she passed the Francis Bond Studio.
“I saw these beautiful landscape paintings and thought I would love to do that.”
So she did.
For $2 per lesson, plus canvasses, Wagner discovered a latent talent for oil-painting. Now every room in her home in Shenandoah Forest Park in Mead is filled with her artwork. Paintings also line the walls of her garage and she’s been teaching Wayne to paint, as well.
She’s shown and sold her work across the region, and for 33 years belonged to the Tri-County Association of the Arts in Deer Park.
One of her recent projects celebrates her heritage.
“My niece Sherry McDowell in Kalispell, Montana, traced our ancestors back to a baron and baroness in England in 1386,” said Wagner. “I thought it would be a shame not to make a record of this, so I painted a 24-by-30-inch family tree on canvas.”
Hundreds of names fill the leaves on the tree, with the most recent addition being Wagner’s 2-year-old great grandson.
Then she had six 18-by-24-inch prints of the painting made for family members.
Over the years she’s painted everything from animals, to flowers, to landscapes, and often her work reflects her sense of fun.
“Dogs Playing Pool,” hung in the clubhouse at Shenandoah Forest Park for many years, until a new owner remodeled and returned the painting to Wagner.
It turns out billiards was another late-in-life skill she mastered. In fact, a collection of pool, bowling and Powder Puff racing trophies line a row of shelves in her home.
Wagner’s been busy making up for lost time.
“I didn’t have much fun in high school. I was too busy milking cows,” she said.
Though she longs to return to playing with her bands, she did recently add a member who sits in her music room. “Bones” is a harmonica-playing, jeans-clad animatronic skeleton.
“He plays ‘She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,’ in the key of G, but not well,” Wagner said, grinning.
She offers this bit of advice to surviving tough times.
“Try to be happy every day.”
In fact, that also sums up her philosophy for aging well.
“I like fun in life,” Wagner said. “If you can’t have fun why bother?”
Cindy Hval can be reached at email@example.com.
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