Late SVSU union leader honored for lasting legacy, large estate gift

Pictured at a ceremony honoring the Wageners (left to right): SSA President Kathleen Chantaca‑Kubczak, former MEA Vice President Nancy Strachan, SSA Vice President Deb Rickert, MEA Vice President Brett Smith.
Pictured at a ceremony honoring the Wageners (left to right): SSA President Kathleen Chantaca‑Kubczak, former MEA Vice President Nancy Strachan, SSA Vice President Deb Rickert, MEA Vice President Brett Smith.

Deb Rickert joined the support staff association when she began working at Saginaw Valley State University three decades ago, but she wasn’t active in the union for the first 15 years of her career as an administrative assistant –  not until she testified at an arbitration hearing.

“It was then I realized that labor has a voice and that voice can be used to help people and make a better working environment for many employees,” Rickert said.

Rickert stepped up to be a union steward and came under the guidance of a legendary figure: Gloria Wagener, longtime president and a founder of the SVSU Support Staff Association (SSA), led Rickert to join MEA committees at the state level to learn, grow and extend the reach of her voice.

“Gloria understood that it takes each one of us to contribute and be actively involved in our union to keep it strong and resilient,” she said.

Now the SSA vice president, Rickert spoke at a November ceremony honoring Wagener, who died in 2016, and her husband who also worked at SVSU and died in 2022. The couple’s estate delivered a staggering $650,000 gift to the support staff union’s endowed scholarship.

Renamed the Gloria J. and Douglas E. Wagener Support Staff Association Endowed Scholarship, the fund was started in 2012 to invest in the education of SSA members, their spouses and children or grandchildren.

The fund had been delivering about $1,000 a year in scholarships without touching the principal amount. With the Wageners’ sizable gift, that figure should increase to more than $25,000 a year in perpetuity, according to the SVSU Foundation.

Gloria Wagener began working at SVSU in 1974 where she met her husband Doug, an electrician who worked in the theater department. The couple valued education and dedicated their lives to the university they loved, its students, and their staff colleagues who made it run.

When Gloria was thwarted in early efforts to secure benefits and improved working conditions for support staff employees, she was among those who organized the SSA in 1980. She led it for 20 years, while also serving in leadership roles at the state and national levels of MEA and NEA.

Known for her encyclopedic knowledge of both SVSU and the SSA, “Gloria was always finding a way to empower and strengthen those around her,” said Saun Strobel, a former president of the SSA who now works at MEA. “She was a confidant, friend, cheerleader, mentor, challenger and advisor.”

Anne Garcia, another former president, said she was mentored by Gloria who had an “eidactic memory” for details and dates. “It drove me crazy, but there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to have her back here telling me dates and contract articles and pushing me to do what needs to be done.”

Scholarship recipient Caleb Zastrow, whose mother Amy Zastrow is an MEA member administrative assistant at SVSU, said financial help allows him to accept leadership opportunities. In one such role, he worked with numerous SVSU secretaries and facilities staff.

“I got to see firsthand how they all work together to make this an exceptional place for students to further their education,” Zastrow said.

Kathleen Chantaca-Kubczak, current SSA president, told those gathered at the ceremony that SSA members were “flabbergasted and proud” when they heard of the Wageners’ generous gift to the scholarship fund.

“They’re legends,” Chantaca-Kubczak said of Gloria and Doug. “What better way to be an example than to give back – not only to the people that are around you but to the place that you worked and cared about so much.”

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