Veteran Saltsburg mayor retiring from office, but not from community service
On Monday, an era will come to an end as Ron Wagner officially retires from nearly three decades of service in Saltsburg's municipal government.
Wagner will hang up the top hat he has worn at ceremonial occasions as he hands over the office of mayor to his newly elected successor — Elizabeth Rocco, a former borough council president.
Wagner's decision to step down comes after 20 years in the mayor's office, preceded by two terms as a councilman.
At 82, he's concluded that he's spent enough time in the role of mayor. “Somebody else ought to have a shot at it,” he said.
One of Wagner's favorite events in Saltsburg is the town's annual Canal Days, held on the first weekend in June. Featuring food, entertainment and reenactors, the festival has attracted many visitors to town for the past 32 years, to celebrate Saltsburg's history as a major stop along the Western Division of Pennsylvania's 19th century canal.
The festival's parade is one of the occasions when Wagner has donned his top hat, in keeping with the event's historical theme.
“The mayors in old Western shows always had a bigger hat,” he said, explaining his choice of headwear. “Since I was the mayor, I thought I ought to act the part.”
The hat had the desired effect — particularly on festival visitors, many of whom asked to have their photo snapped with him.
For many years, Wagner rented the hat whenever he needed it.
“I rented it for $20 a day,” he said, before deciding to purchase the distinctive hat seven years ago. “I figured it would cost less in the long run,” he explained.
In addition to attracting many visitors and providing fun for residents, the festival has had other benefits, Wagner noted.
“It's good because the people cleaned up areas for getting company for Canal Days,” he said.
Also, the festival has provided one of the prime opportunities for the Saltsburg Volunteer Fire Department to serve one of its fundraising staples — fried dough sandwiches featuring meats such as ham and salami.
“I always look forward to Canal Days. That's when the firemen made money with their sandwiches,” noted Wagner, who is a nearly 60-year member of the local firefighting organization.
During part of that time, he served 19 years as fire chief and represented the Saltsburg company on the Indiana County Fire Chiefs' Association.
Though he no longer responds on fire calls, Wagner continues to help out with fire department fundraisers. In addition to sandwich sales, firefighters generate income by holding bingo and gun bash events and an annual “boot drive.” In the latter drive, held shortly before Christmas, Wagner explained, motorists passing through Saltsburg are invited to stuff cash donations into empty boots presented by firefighters.
Wagner's roles with the borough and the fire company are part of a lifelong involvement in public and community service that began with his nearly five-year stint in the U.S. Army, stationed in Europe with an infantry unit during the Korean War era.
After completing his tour of duty, Wagner became a member of both the Saltsburg American Legion post and the Indiana Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
Wagner served as commander of the Saltsburg Legion post in 2010 and was second vice commander this past year.
He also is a member of a local honor guard that conducts military services for the funerals of fellow veterans.
Unfortunately, he noted, there is no let-up in demand for the honor guard as Saltsburg continues to lose its older veterans. “We average about three a month,” he said of the military funerals.
The Saltsburg Legion members also place U.S. flags on local veterans' graves each Memorial Day, and they supported creation of a veterans' memorial across Salt Street from the fire department's River Hall.
Wagner also has served the community as an emergency medical technician over three decades. He and members of his family additionally have long been involved with a local recreational committee that developed and continues to operate Saltsburg's public swimming pool.
“It needs some help,” Wagner said of the pool. “This year we lost a couple thousand dollars, which is good compared to some other pools.”
Wagner has held down a variety of jobs over the years. After leaving the Army, he initially working for the state highway department and then in the steel mills of Youngstown Sheet and Tube. “We made a lot of pipe,” he recalled of the latter job. “I drilled samples for the chemists to analyze.”
A native of the Indiana County village of Heshbon, Wagner met his late wife, Betty, in 1950. When they wed, they settled down in her hometown of Saltsburg.
There he got a job at the town's lumber yard, where his tasks included driving delivery trucks.
“We would deliver lumber, sheet rock, whatever people bought,” Wagner said. “Most of our stuff went to Westmoreland County. The owner was from the Greensburg area, and he knew everybody over there.”
He noted the job at the lumber yard is what sparked his long involvement with the fire department. Wagner explained the department needed people to drive its fire trucks, and his boss at the lumber yard was sympathetic to the cause. He not only excused Wagner and other workers from their regular duties when they answered fire calls, but he also continued to pay them wages for the time they spent responding to emergencies.
When Wagner joined the fire department, he recalled, the company had only two fire trucks, which were housed in a garage located behind the current borough building. The borough now houses its police cruisers in the garage.
Three major fires stand out from Wagner's early years with the Saltsburg department — a 1956 blaze at the Old Main building on the campus of The Kiski School, a boys' preparatory school located across the river in Loyalhanna Township; a fire at the Joy Manufacturing plant near Elder's Ridge; and flames that damaged the Acme grocery store on Saltsburg's Point Street, a building that is now home to the local Aging Services' social center.
Of those three, the fire at the school “was the big one,” he said.
While the Saltsburg department now has a fleet of six vehicles, with the limited equipment available at the time of the Old Main fire, Wagner noted, “We got a lot of help from different companies.”
Over the years, he added, there were some “sad things” — including incidents when victims were burned to death in fires and others that resulted in drownings in the waterway that fronts the town — the Conemaugh River, which, after the confluence with the Loyalhanna Creek, becomes the Kiskiminetas River.
One of those drownings, he said, was a motivating factor in developing the community pool — to provide youngsters an alternative to cooling off in the river.
It was Wagner's duties as fire chief that led him into borough government, he said: “When I became fire chief, I attended the borough meetings.”
Eventually, he would win election to a seat on the borough council.
Wagner counts Saltsburg's involvement in development of a hydroelectric plant, downstream from the Conemaugh Dam, as one of best moves the borough has made.
Motivated by the 1970s oil crisis, the venture came to fruition in the mid- to late-1980s, when Wagner was serving on borough council.
In 1986, the borough — a co-licensee for the plant with Pennsylvania Renewable Resources — obtained a $3.2 million federal Urban Development Action Grant, which was used toward the $31 million cost of developing the 15-megawatt plant.
That repaid grant has provided investment income for the borough. Also, as municipal sponsors of the project, the borough and neighboring Conemaugh Township collect royalties from the plant's sales of the electricity it generates — revenue which is to continue during the facility's 50-year operating license.
The plant went online in February 1989.
“A lot of other outfits were afraid to take the chance, but we got the grant,” Wagner said, noting that Westmoreland County, where the plant is located, assisted in obtaining the funds.
“That was a big thing that helped us go through the years without a lot of tax increases,” Wagner said of the extra revenue the borough continues to collect as a result of the plant project. “We lucked into that.
“I hope that income keeps coming in down through the years.”
In 1993, Wagner traded his council seat for the office of mayor, which includes overseeing the police department.
Wagner said he recommends against a heavy-handed approach to enforcing local laws — particularly with younger offenders.
In the majority of cases of Saltsburg youth involved in mischief, he said, community service has been the preferred punishment.
He suggests that local police will have much better luck keeping youth in line “if you get along good with them.”
As part of the powers of his office, Wagner has had the ability to officiate at weddings. But it's a power he's never exercised.
It's not that he hasn't been asked to perform such ceremonies. “I've turned down probably six,” he said, adding, “Marriage is a religious thing that should be done by clergy. That's the way I believe.”
But serving as a town ambassador is another aspect of the mayoral position that came easily to the amiable Wagner.
“I've had good relations with others,” he said, noting he became good friends with his counterpart in Indiana Borough, George Hood, through gatherings of area mayors and other officials as part of the Indiana County Boroughs Association.
According to Wagner, Hood “called me the dean of the mayors in our county because of my years in office.”
Through his mayoral role, Wagner said, he's also come to know the county commissioners and the area's state legislators:“I've had all good relations with those guys.”
One of the perks of being mayor that he's enjoyed has been receiving invitations to swearing-in ceremonies for several United States presidents as well as Christmas cards from the Oval Office and from the Governor's Mansion in Harrisburg.
After so many years as a central figure in the public life of his town, retirement for Wagner won't mean withdrawing completely from community affairs.
Though he will no longer be mayor, he noted he'll likely continue to appear in many of Saltsburg's parades — now as part of the veterans' unit.
And he expects that, retirement or not, many will continue to think of him in his role as mayor.
“Kids I don't even know, they know me now,” Wagner pointed out.
Though he'll continue to take an interest in his town's progress, particularly planned development of a new sewage treatment plant, Wagner also has an extended family to keep him busy —four living children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
As he eases out of official involvement with the borough, he remarked, “I figure I'll be getting involved in something else.”
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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