Many reaching out to help Waagner family
The Derrick, 1/8/02 By LISA THOMPSON


A special thank you goes out to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted


Her husband imprisoned, her nine children grieving and her makeshift home near Clintonville still an architectural work-in-progress, Mary Waagner may be living what she terms a "tailor-made nightmare."

But there are growing signs that many in the community, including Republican Congressman John Peterson, want to help her reclaim her family from the isolation and destitution imposed by her husband Clayton Lee Waagner's alleged crime spree.

In the weeks before Christmas, Mrs. Waagner for the first time publicly shared the story of her tumultuous 24-year marriage to her husband, an accused abortion clinic stalker and bank robber. She also described her struggles to raise the couple's nine children alone on limited means during his alleged anti-abortion terror campaign.

Waagner led federal authorities on a high-profile nine-month manhunt before being captured in Cincinnati last month. He likely faces life in prison for everything from bank robberies to hoax anthrax threat letters he allegedly sent abortion clinics nationwide.

Mary and her children, Emily, 23, Clay, 19, Rebecca, 18, Kelly, 17, Luke, 15, Jane 13, Cody, 12, Colt, 10, and Hope, 9, meanwhile, remain committed to Waagner, if not his crimes. They face an unknown future alone without him. While publicity swirls around her husband's every utterance and move, Mary remains largely removed from the news, her focus riveted elsewhere.

"I have been so focused on survival and have been for so long, keeping up with the kids' school, keeping food on the table, and keeping a roof over their head, that's as far as I can get," she said.

"I will not give up on my faith or on my family," she says.

Mary's story outraged some, who protested its publishing and called on Mary to "wake up." But others, from school children to church groups, retirees, businessmen and even Peterson (R-5th), quickly reached out to the family in response.

The effort started with a few personal visits. A church group came to the house with a fruit basket and prayed with the family. A neighbor brought cookies. Others delivered Christmas gifts. Offers and plans to rehab her house with plumbing, wiring and appliances followed.

Now Peterson has announced that a fund has been established at a local bank to help the family. Peterson says he wants to raise enough money to attach a four-bedroom modular addition to the home.

The Waagners' two-bedroom Amish-built home located in the woods off Route 308 was still under construction when the family moved in 1998. It is heated with a smoky wood stove the size of a small car on the first floor and a coal stove in the basement. Plywood covers the kitchen floor. There are no closets for the 10 occupants' belongings. Until recently, there were only two electrical outlets in the house, both in the basement, and no indoor toilet.

Supporting her eight kids at home alone since her husband first embarked on his alleged crime spree in 1999, Mary has not had the time or money to address the repairs in her home. She earns money to cover her sizable mortgage and other bills by taxiing the Amish in a van with more than 100,000 miles on it.

Peterson says he thinks an addition will help make the home more habitable for Mary's large family.

"We just decided that there was no way to go in there and fix it with 10 people living there in a two-bedroom house," Peterson said, explaining the plans for the addition.

"Our future is about our young people. Here are nine young people who never had a chance for a normal life, a normal home, and in spite of that, they're really nice kids," he said.

"The problem of their father is never going to go away. The least we can do as a community is see that they have a warm quality home where they have a chance to have a normal home life," he said.

Peterson has been working with Bill and Ruth Armitage, heating contractors from Shippenville who are coordinating the local effort to help the family.

"If a community fails to help young people have some kind of normal life, the problem is going to be perpetuated. These young people," he said, referring to the Waagner children, "need to know that people love and care for them and do not hold them responsible for someone else's actions."

"I am asking my friends and neighbors to help," he said. "If anyone wants to criticize me for that, come right on. This is about the kids and a mother who is trying to hold onto them."

At Peterson's request, New Era Building Systems of Strattanville is working on a plan for the addition, which the congressman says they will sell to the Waagners at a discounted rate. The company is also working with its suppliers to keep the cost of the project down, Peterson said.

The congressman thinks the project will cost between $15,000 and $20,000. He's trying to raise some of that money through his own network of friends and associates. Others may donate to the "Mary Waagner Family Fund" which he and the Salvation Army established at First United National Bank in Fryburg, he said.

Donations may be made in person or by mail to any of the bank's branches in Fryburg, Oil City, Franklin, Clarion and New Bethlehem. The Salvation Army is in control of the fund and will dispense it, without charge, to the family as needed. Donations are tax deductible.

Those who wish to donate labor or other services are asked to contact Bill Armitage.

Peterson said the family is already deeply in debt with the mortgage on the modest home and 19 acres. Mary was not in a position to take out a loan for repairs.

"Taking on more debt is not something we should ask her to do," he said.

Peterson and the Armitages said they decided to get involved immediately after reading about the family's plight.

"This is not about Mr. Waagner. This is about a family left behind," Peterson said.

"You're going to find in any criminal's family, a family left behind that pays for crimes they didn't commit. I have never been one to punish parents or a child for crimes they didn't commit. Only God is the judge, not us," he said.

"I just started making calls," Peterson said.

The Armitages, both 72 years old, visited the family and offered to help the weekend after Mary's story was published.

Ruth said she felt called by God to do something. They hosted the family for a meal on Christmas day and now visit the family almost daily.

Ruth said her family once lost everything in a hurricane in Texas. She remembers what help from others meant to her then. She wants to do the same for the Waagners.

"Those are precious children who are emotionally hurt," she said.

"The consideration and love that comes from people, knowing that somebody cares, that gives you a desire to go on. You're not quite so overwhelmed when you know there are people out there that do truly care," she said.

"I think if we can just help them up right now and support them a little bit to get on their feet and give them some hope, they can be a self-sustaining family," she said.

Mary is both surprised by and grateful for the response.

On a recent day, still recovering from the flu, she was tending a weeping, diapered grandchild while his brother played, roaring, with a red and yellow plastic dump truck on the floor nearby. Her older children competed for control of the radio and performed magic acts with a Harry Potter magician set while the house alternately grew smoky, then cold, as the living room wood stove fire waxed and waned.

Mary laughed as daughter Kelly, 17, told her about a recent letter to the editor in which a woman exhorted Mary to "wake up and smell the coffee" and called her stories about her life "fairy tales."

"I thought fairy tales were when the charming prince came and woke you up," she said. "I'm not living any fairy tale, I know. This is a tailor-made nightmare."

But there are signs that the situation may be improving. This time when Mary put the kettle on for a hot drink, she boiled the water not in a tiny microwave that was the only cooking apparatus she had last month. Instead, she set the kettle on a gleaming new electric stove, a surprise gift to the family from a family-owned Oil City appliance business.

"I don't know how to thank everybody for making Christmas wonderful and for making it clear that there are people out there who don't blame us for everything my husband did," she said.

Mary has not sought or asked for these gifts. She says she is certainly not counting on any addition to her home or grand renovation plan. "That's way out here, a dream," she said.

Her only hope is to get her home to the point where the family can conduct its life in peace and order.

"They all know if their dad comes home, it will only be because of a miracle. That's why we have such a mess. How do we dig out from this one? They just want to get to a point where we're not living campout style," she said.

"I believe then that some of the disappointment and anger will dissipate because it's not just that dad's gone, it's the uproar," she said.

And Mary thinks it would be nice to have friends again. Her husband's actions propelled the family into an unwanted exile. Neighbors, even longtime friends, shunned them out fear, out of anger. Last fall, when her car broke down, Mary says she walked seven miles back and forth to a restaurant job because she had no one she could call for a ride.

"That's something that's has really been hard for me. I really missed being around people," she said.

She's hoping that some of the people who brought things to the family in recent weeks come again, and this time, stay for coffee.