Shooting victim was lost soul who found a Pigtown haven

April 18, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

EVERYONE WHO knew him these last few years seems to agree that Ron Waggener was a lost soul who found himself again -- found the spirit he'd lost as a young man in Vietnam -- among the children, the music, the flowers and trees in that oasis of hope along Washington Boulevard in Pigtown, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle.

He was a surprise to everyone, a stranger who seemed to walk out of the fog one day, pick up a broom and shovel, and go to work for the church. He was a modest, self-educated man with a sharp mind. He could talk baseball; he could talk Brahms. He appreciated the great philosophers, the Hall of Fame pitchers, and the potential in a scraggly old tree. He could confidently discuss the rhythmic dynamics of Bach's Passacaglia.

"He wore scruffy clothes, and he didn't shave much, and his hair was unkempt," says his friend and fellow music lover, Arthur Eagle. "But he could keep pace with any intellectual on any subject."

I listen to all the stories about this man, who had a love of beauty that years of depression could not extinguish, and I wish I had known him. I wish I had been around to witness, as many did, Ron Waggener's rebirth. As it turns out, I arrived too late. They had his memorial service in the church yesterday morning.

And though this story takes a bitter turn, with Waggener's life ending horribly and violently, there seems to be a lot to savor here -- one man's quiet and glorious success in finding his way out of the fogs of life.

"When I first met him, he struck me as just a loner in the neighborhood," says St. Paul's pastor, the Rev. Walter Burgess. "He was not a lifelong Pigtown guy; he had moved here. He struck me as a little paranoid at first. Then he started coming around. He seemed to find his purpose here."

Waggener liked St. Paul's and became, in time, the Episcopal church's sexton. "That's a fancy term for the guy who cleans up the church for not much money," says Burgess.

He also became the gardener -- and more, the architect of a beautiful courtyard garden. He became an after-school tutor to neighborhood children and the head cook of charity suppers. He was the small man with big ideas, the producer and director of a children's Christmas pageant.

His last expressed ambition was to produce Thornton Wilder's Our Town in the church hall. The play is famous for its lack of scenery, and that might have been why it suited Waggener, a poor man endowed with a rich intellect. "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind -- not in things, not in 'scenery,'" Wilder said of Our Town. A play "needs only five square feet of boarding and a passion to know what life means to us."

Ron Waggener appears to have been on that journey.

He told only parts of his life's story to Burgess and to Eagle, the church's music director. They heard about Waggener's platoon in Vietnam -- and one experience, particularly ghastly, that seemed to have a lasting effect on his psyche. He spent several years in Hawaii after the war, then returned to Baltimore, where he held a job in banking operations and lived with his mother. When she died in 1990, Waggener seemed to lose his grip on things.

He lived for several years along the margins, taking only temporary jobs, suffering from a bipolar disorder and drinking too much. Eagle thinks he had "two or three nervous breakdowns" in his life.

A few years ago, he started coming around St. Paul's. "He found himself here," says Burgess, whose church stands firm in Pigtown, one of those old west-side neighborhoods that has been in a full-pitch struggle to survive for years.

"He found validation here," says Eagle. "He found it in being able to give us just about anything we needed."

And then he was gone.

Police know what happened but not why.

Waggener, who lived on Cross Street a few blocks from the church, was walking home along Washington Boulevard late on March 25 when a man driving a blue Lincoln Town Car pulled up to the sidewalk, stepped out of the vehicle, exchanged a few words with him, aimed a handgun at his head, fired one shot, returned to his car and drove away.

A witness saw Waggener cover his face just before the shot was fired. Police described the suspect as a 5-foot-10, slender black man, bald, about 30 years old, dressed in a heavy black coat. Police are still looking for him. They recovered a bullet cartridge, a pair of eyeglasses and 16 cents in the street where Ron Waggener fell.

He died five days later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

By yesterday, there was no talk of the moment of Ron Waggener's death, but of his 62 years of life -- particularly the ones he lived after finding himself again at St. Paul's. The musical selections included Dido's Lament ("When I Am Laid in Earth") from Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, sung by Rebecca Austin, an opera singer and friend of Eagle's and Waggener's.

And Eagle played the Brahms Intermezzo in A major, Opus 118, a piece his friend had encouraged him to learn. "It's such a sublime little intermezzo, so simple and so full of beauty and meaning," Eagle says. "Ron used to say, `Beauty and happiness is found everywhere in everything, or nowhere and in nothing.' Isn't that remarkable? And he lived by that. It wasn't just an axiom. He lived by it."

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