TRAVERSE CITY -- In 1984, a prominent local businessman donated $500,000 to Traverse City's hospital.
He didn't hand the check to some hospital big-shot, though. He gave it to a longtime nurse.
Radio station mogul Les Biederman's decision to pass the check to veteran nurse Marge Wagner wasn't happenstance, for she wasn't an ordinary hospital employee.
An ailing Biederman witnessed first-hand Wagner's compassion, strength and professionalism.
“I cared for Les at 7 a.m. every morning," Wagner said recently. "I remember Dr. (Donald) Pike, as a friend, telling Les to 'stop smoking those cigars.' One day, toward the end of his treatment he said, 'I have something for you' and hands me a check for $500,000.
"He said, 'You're getting a bigger radiotherapy department, a new building.' I gave the check to Dr. Maurie Pelto. Afterward, Les convinced the Rotary to match his donation, which doubled the amount."
Biederman died in 1986, but his legacy continues, in part through a cancer treatment center that carries his name, on a building adjacent to Munson Medical Center's main campus.
His donations and other support earned him status as a Munson giant, but his symbolic embrace of Wagner spoke volumes about a woman who became every bit as legendary in Munson and community circles.
Wagner's care surely played a role in Biederman's gift, Pelto said.
“There's no doubt that the sheer amount of the donation was due to Marge Wagner,” he said.
Wagner spent 43 years treating Munson's cancer patients, and got her start in 1950, back when the facility was still called James Decker Munson Hospital. From a sober perch tending to cancer patients, Kingsley native Wagner watched a sleepy small town grow into a tourist and retiree hotbed, as well as northern Michigan's economic hub.
As Traverse City grew, so too did the community hospital. It evolved into a nationally recognized healthcare provider, top regional employer, and fundamental part of the Grand Traverse region.
These days, Wagner, 83, lives near the hospital, at Grand Traverse Pavilions. She's not well. Ovarian cancer, another variation of the disease she helped treat for decades. But she has a rapport with her own nurses, and there's a sense that -- if needed -- Wagner could help them with their rounds.
Former co-workers recall her as a remarkably resourceful and efficient nurse, someone who went about getting her results in a revolutionary, “magic” field of cancer treatment. She devoted her life to controlling tumors, or “cancer combat,” she called it.
“I never knew how they could do it -- my patients -- go through it all. But now I get it: first, 'what are you going to do?' And then I have my faith.”
A legend's protege
Wagner is one of 11 children, and still meets her six remaining brothers for brunch at Schelde's restaurant. Her oldest brothers, Vincent, 97, and Ambrose (“Amp”), 95, still call their little sister "Margaret."
Her only sister, Lucille, is a nun at St. Aquinas in Grand Rapids.
Her links to patient care extend to her birth in 1930. Family doctor Joe Brownson also lived in Kingsley, and he was at the their home for the birth of each child. She recalls when Dr. Brownson came to deliver her brother Jack Weber, her youngest sibling, who today is 77.
Her niece, Marcia Weber, also became a nurse and fondly remembers her aunt on-duty.
“Aunt Marge was one of the very last nurses to give up her cap. It was part of the uniform," Weber said. "She wore all white, all the time. She was proud of that cap because she took her job to heart.
"From a farm family with 11 kids, she was grateful to have a chance at a degree. That cap was a symbol that she had accomplished something. She wore it with a short, black haircut and a big smile."
Wagner's nursing career began in 1950, and soon took off after an encounter with another eventual Munson legend.
“Dr. Harry Weitz stopped me in the hallway by Radiology," Wagner said. "He asked me to work in his department and help with this new Radiotherapy idea."
She protested she knew nothing about the concept, but he waved off her concerns.
"He said, 'We'll teach you'," Wagner said.
She became an important part of the Radiation Therapy Unit, Weitz's brainchild. Weitz launched the hospital's X-ray effort in the late-1930s and throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, and he delegated several of his tasks to his young nurse.
Wagner fondly recalls Weitz and his standard of professionalism.
“I saw that man read so many (x-ray) films. And then he'd turn around and enlighten the docs on how to treat the problem, too.”
Weitz died in 2009 at age 99.
Wagner's years in Radiotherapy spanned the local use of innovative study and treatment of cancer. She worked with Superficial X-ray, Deep Therapy, and later a Cobalt machine.
“I began this work over a decade before the first oncologist came to town," Wagner said. "The patients' family docs would handle the chemo portion.”
Not to say she didn't handle many of the chores herself, including how to determine patients' radiation doses.
“In the early days, I figured out the measurements on my own,” Wagner said. "I had to reach 5,000 R (radiation to the tumor) over a five-week period. I actually used a slide rule to measure it out, based on the patient's body size.”
Wagner assisted Pelto, now retired, in radiology. Pelto recalled that Wagner was “particularly matched for this position" because she was the hospital's lone nurse and radiology oncology technician.
"She could care for a patient from both of these angles," Pelto said. "What was remarkable about Marge was that she'd follow her patients' progress long after treatment. She knew how they were doing - the children, especially. She'd always have their photos handy and knew how they were doing in school, when they got married, etc. So the young people that were treated always came back in to see Marge.”
Returning the favor
Wagner had a steady, calming presence with hundreds of cancer patients and their families.
"I'd get really close to the families," she said. "I'd link up with the family afterward, even if the patient didn't come through. I went to open houses and visitations to support my families. Likewise, staff, docs, and patient families came out for me when (her husband) died."
Now she confronts a disease that she spent a career treating in others.
From her room at the Pavilions, replete with medical screens that she can interpret herself, Wagner is geographically 800 feet from her Cobalt Therapy room. What can't be read on charts or graphs is what she meant to her patients and co-workers.
But there's ample evidence of a life and career well-led. Her visitors' list is a Who's Who of Munson past and present.
“All the docs' sons have come to visit me here in the Pavilions: Weitz, Phelps, Williams, and both Steffey boys. Plus, Bette Bos, Dr. Cover, Dr. Carpenter, and Skendzel with his dog. Also, Maurie Pelto drives up to see me,” Wagner said.
The old friends reminisce about the nascent stages of Radiotherapy, and about some of their more comical antics, wheelchair races and the like. In some ways they've turned the tables on her, showing some of the compassion they witnessed from her over past decades.
They talk about life and loss, and Wagner speaks of her late husband, Dick Wagner, Munson's maintenance supervisor or 40 years.
“My husband was so dedicated to Munson," she said. "He'd be up at 4 a.m. and get home from work at 7 p.m. He'd stay late often, because something would always come up. He knew it all: electrical, plumbing, everything behind-the-scenes at Munson."
"Straight and forward. A good guy," she said. "We were married 55 years. No kids, but we worked our whole lives.”
Wagner's positive attitude toward her patients and co-workers alike was considered a curative elixir in its own right. Her cooperation and humility added to a congenial work culture cultivated in the James Decker Munson era.
She put it this way: “We were in it together.”
They still are.
Rebecca Peterson is an Elk Rapids native and resident. Her profile of Marge Wagner is part of a book she's writing about James Decker Munson Hospital.