The author John Wagner was a successful lawyer with a prominent U.S. law firm in the 1990s. A frequent adventure and spiritual traveler, his life changed dramatically during a study tour on the history and culture of Peru, including studying Sendero Luminoso, the violent terrorist group. He gave up everything seeking personal transformation and risked his career and his life to join a mission organization to work for human rights in Peru—in the face of a death threat if he did so. In Peru, he deepened his spirituality, worked on a landmark human rights case, and fell in love with Bella, a local teacher.
After his work in Peru, he returned to the U.S., resumed his legal career, and married Bella. He holds degrees from Western State Colorado University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin Law School. An early Baby Boomer, he has been a civil rights and antiwar activist, a disc jockey (loving rock n roll, jazz, and opera), a world traveler, and a motorcyclist. He is now retired from practicing law and lives with Bella in Sacramento, California, near their children and grandchildren.
John literally has “been there and done that.” He grew up as an “Army Brat,” a child of a father who was an officer in the Army. Both his father, George, and mother, Evelyn, hailed from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, site of the infamous Johnstown Floods. After being born in Tennessee (near an Army base in Georgia), John’s parents took him to Germany, where his father supervised three post-war Displaced Persons camps. John’s family lived on or near Army posts in Germany and grew from three (Mom, Dad, and John) to six people (John’s younger brothers Tom, Mike, and George) during the family’s stay in Germany.
Returning to the US, the family lived on or near Army bases in Kentucky (John’s sister Mary was born at Ft. Knox) and Arkansas (John’s brother Bill was born in Fort Smith, near Camp Chaffee). They lived in Johnstown while John’s dad was stationed in Korea during the conflict there. The family moved from Camp Chaffee shortly before Elvis Presley was inducted into the Army there and John missed his chance for an Elvis sighting. The family then moved to Aurora, Colorado, where John’s dad was stationed at Fitzsimons General Hospital. After his dad retired from the Army, the family stayed in Aurora. Both his parents worked as social caseworkers in the Denver area and then both, one after the other, took time off to earn a master’s degree from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. After graduation from Hinkley H.S. in Aurora, John attended Western Colorado State University, graduating with a major in English. Labeled an underachiever in earlier years, John found his creative self at Western Colorado State: participating on the debate team; writing for the college newspaper and becoming the Features Editor; joining the fray of student politics, becoming the president of his class and later the University’s Scholastic Director; helping found the college radio station, writing poetry, some of which was published in a national anthology; and organizing “teach-ins” against the Vietnam War.ohn’s
After college, following in his parents’ footsteps John became a social caseworker in Colorado Springs before going to the University of Chicago for a master’s degree in Social Service Administration. At graduation, John’s classmates awarded him the, “‘That’s Not The Right Question’ Award” for his class discussions that often invoked that phrase. In Chicago, John again participated in numerous activities, including: many antiwar and civil rights activities; helped create the first annual Roundtable on Child Abuse, bringing together health professionals, teachers, police officers, and others; teaching poetry to elementary school classes in a high poverty neighborhood; and helping found “Changes,” an innovative social service agency for teenagers that went on to win many awards over several years.
After he was graduated from the University of Chicago, John moved to New England, where he served as a mental health social worker in southern Maine and then in Concord, New Hampshire, where he was the Director of the Concord Youth Program. During his time in Concord, john ran a vigorous (although unsuccessful) campaign for the state’s first Constitutional Convention during the modern era.
John was then lured to Madison, Wisconsin, to become the Director of Dane County’s Mental Health Program. He loved this work but, after seeing many intersections between mental health and the law, decided to apply for the University of Wisconsin of Law School, where he was accepted. At law school, he again participated in many activities including: working at Madison’s listener-sponsored radio station, WORT; working on a successful campaign to remove a judge who had made offensive comments about women who were raped “asking for it;” winning the Law School’s Client Counseling Competition and participating in the national Competition at the Notre Dame Law School; and making the Law Review, where he became Articles Editor. He wrote a Note for the law review on new Wisconsin juvenile justice legislation (“Wisconsin’s New Juvenile Waiver Statute: Are We Waiving Goodbye to Juvenile Rights?” 1979 Wis. L. Rev. 190. He began an article about the sex discrimination opinions of US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, which was published in the Pepperdine Law Review after John had been graduated from law school. (“Justice Stevens and the Emerging Law of Sex Discrimination,” 1982 Pepperdine L. Rev. Vol. 9, 315.) During summers in law school John clerked for the Mental Health Department of the State of Wisconsin and prominent law firms in Washington, D.C. and in San Francisco.
John graduated from Law School cum laude and was named a member of the prestigious Order of the Coif. After completing law school, John clerked for federal appeals court judge Robert A. Sprecher. Tragically, Judge Sprecher died a few years after John’s clerkshoip. John wrote a tribute to him published in the Law Review of Judge Sprecher’s alma mater, Northwestern University Law School (“Judge Robert A. Sprecher: A Law Clerk’s Tribute,” 78 Northwestern L. Rev. 301 (1983).)
Now it was time for John to begin his legal career. He had narrowed down his choices to Washington, D.C. (where perhaps he might get involved in exciting national cases), Denver (where most of his family still was, or was nearby), or San Francisco. But he felt most of the lawyers he saw in action in Washington and Denver were totally consumed by work, often at the peril of their marriages and family lives. He chose San Francisco, which had a bit of its old “artsy” scene, feeling he might “have a life” in addition to work. Was he ever wrong! Soon he was just as much of a workaholic as he would have been anywhere. he learned the hard lesson that the problem of a balanced life wasn’t where he worked; the problem was within himself, a problem he never resolved. He put in long weekday hours and worked weekends in San Francisco, just as he would have in any other city.
Attorneys generally find themselves in one of two broad camps: litigation attorneys, who try cases in court, and transaction attorneys, who make deals through negotiations. Neither camp is better than the other and both can involve long hours. John quickly found he loved being a litigation attorney, preparing cases for trial.
After a few years in San Francisco, John was asked by an attorney he had worked for while a summer clerk in Washington, D.C., to help develop a branch office of a firm specializing in healthcare law in Sacramento. John moved to Sacramento and, except for his time as a human rights worker, has lived there ever since. Before his human rights work, he successfully litigated a case before the United States Supreme Court, representing Redbud Hospital in northern California, which would have been forced to close by new, draconian, governmental rules that John successfully challenged. In Sacramento, John also helped found a listener sponsored radio station in Sacramento (“Sacramento Community Radio”), and had his own program Sunday nights: “Uncle John’s Jam.” He defined a jam as any form of music (or even spoken word) “that takes a theme and develops it–No three-minute songs here!” (Except for that time the “theme” was the rock n roll classic, “Dancing in The Streets,” and he played two hours of every known version of it he could get his hands on!)
Once established as a lawyer, John became interested in adventure travel. He took a trek to Nepal, going to the top of a mountain named Kala Patar, which at 18,500 feet overlooks the base camp from which technical climbers begin their ascents of Mt. Everest. John loved this trek, his only regret being that a trekking group is by necessity self-contained and, as a result, he did not get to know much about the local Nepalese population or culture, except in routine tourist transactions such as buying souvenirs. Later, looking for a trip that would involve beautiful mountains but would also involve getting to know the local population, John decided on a study tour of Peru sponsored by Global Awareness Through Education (GATE), an organization that creates excellent and thorough study tours in Latin America.
The GATE study tour of Peru changed his life. He did see beautiful Machu Picchu, the sacred “lost city” of the Incas set on a mountaintop, but he also learned the history, culture and politics of Peru through classes taught by university professors and experienced Peru workers. He visited many slums and shanty towns (“pueblos jóvenes,” young towns) and also learned of the dire human rights situation there. After much thinking and reflection, he decided to seek personal transformation, spirituality, and human rights work for the oppressed people of Peru. John decided to leave his comfortable life in the United States to become a human rights worker in Peru. He was accepted as a “lay missioner” with a religious organization and had an extensive training program in the US and Spanish language school in Bolivia. He met a beautiful and inspiring Peruvian teacher, Bella. His inspirational memoir of his experiences is TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru. This memoir is due out in the fall, 2015.
After he returned from Peru, John returned to Sacramento where he worked for a Legal Aid Clinic and, later, re-established his healthcare law practice. John was again successful and was frequently named by San Francisco Magazine as a Northern California “Superlawyer” in the healthcare field. He wrote numerous articles and gave numerous talks on healthcare issues, priding himself on making complex issues as simple as possible by breaking them down into their component parts. He was also the editor, and author of some chapters, of a legal treatise on administrative law, i.e., the law relating to practice before governmental administrative agencies, such as the federal and state agencies that govern healthcare in the US (California Administrative Mandamus ([California] Continuing Education of the Bar).)
John retired from his law practice after more than thirty years. He is now a full time writer and speaker. He and his wife still live in Sacramento, nearby their children and grandchildren. John was an avid motorcyclist, riding his Harley all around northern California, until his retirement from that sport. He loves art and music and, while he remains a child of the 60s, he has now become an opera buff as well, traveling all over the world to see opera performances, especially new versions of Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring Cycle.
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