Girl who saw injustice made justice her life's work

The daughter of a KKK member grew up to fight to protect her gay son.

Tulsa World/January 22, 2011

In 2000, Wagner was a grand marshal in Tulsa's annual gay pride parade, alongside Gabi Clayton, with whom she had founded the support group Families United Against Hate.

In a statement this week, Families United praised Wagner's life: "Plenty of people tried to stop her, but never with any success. ... We know her legacy will never die as long as we carry the spirit of her love within us, and take action with as much courage, humor, and wisdom as she did."

Wagner once talked about her youth in a report issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

She had been a witness to Klan violence at an early age and used to drive her father to his Klan meetings.

Although she went only reluctantly, Wagner said it wasn't until that night in 1965 that she made up her mind not to be a passive observer any longer.

A Fort Smith, Ark., native, who held a nursing degree from Westark College, Carolyn Wagner, a registered nurse by trade, devoted much of her professional career to children, including abuse victims and those suffering from cancer and terminal illnesses.

She founded Camp Rainbow, a camp for children with cancer, which later became Children's Oncology Camps of America.

Bill Wagner said: "Carolyn will be remembered as an activist and civil rights hero to many, but for me she was simply the love of my life, my best friend and an amazing mother to our children."

Wagner is survived by her husband of 37 years, Bill Wagner; one son, William Wagner II; one daughter, Clara Kelly Stein; and two granddaughters.

Friends are contributing to Families United Against Hate or PFLAG.

One hot Arkansas night in the summer of 1965, a conscience-stricken 12-year-old girl crept back to the field where just minutes before a handful of men in stark white hoods had gathered to deliver a message.

They were gone, but their victim was still there.

She found him tied to the railroad tracks, where he had been beaten. He was still conscious.

Quietly cutting the black man's bonds, she gave him directions to the nearest city and sent him on his way.

Many years afterward, Carolyn Wagner would describe that moment as the first of two key turning points in her life.

The next would come nearly three decades later, when as a mother, she had to watch her teenage son, who was gay, endure bullying and assaults at school.

Wagner and her family eventually won a federal Title IX lawsuit against the Fayetteville, Ark., school district that her son attended, in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For Wagner, the former Ku Klux Klansman's daughter who had gone from witnessing one kind of extremism firsthand to another, it was a seminal event. Her transformation into social crusader was complete.

A nationally known gay rights advocate and former vice president of the national Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays board, Carolyn Marie Wagner died Tuesday in Tulsa after a long battle with cancer. She was 57.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center in Tulsa. Serenity Funeral Home is handling the arrangements.

Wagner, a longtime Arkansas resident, and her husband, Bill Wagner, retired to Tulsa three years ago, and she continued her advocacy work here through the local PFLAG chapter and Oklahomans for Equality, among other groups.

Despite her worsening health, "Carolyn was involved in everything," said Toby Jenkins, executive director of Oklahomans for Equality.

"She made sure everyone knew about the Equality Center and its programs. She brought us a lot of national attention and connections that we didn't have before.

"I don't think the average gay person in Tulsa has any idea that this mother with the strong Arkansas accent was the kind of warrior she was in fighting for our issues."

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