Robert E. Wagner, 90, respected agronomist who raised prize cattle

Growing up in Kansas, Bob Wagner wanted all his life to raise prize cattle.

Upon retiring in Georgia after a celebrated career as an agronomist, he fulfilled that dream, not with one cattle spread but three. One was in Pike County, another in Meriwether County and the third in Spalding County -- all within five miles of one another.

"Dad started with Herefords, but then switched entirely to the Gelbvieh breed, which originated in Germany," said his son, Robert Wagner Jr. of Nunn, Colo. "At his peak he had about 300 head. His bulls did especially well, scoring high in tests of weight gain, an important factor in the economics of cattle raising."

This wasn't Mr. Wagner's first livestock venture. Another son, Douglas Wagner of Stone Mountain, recalled as a boy raising rabbits for show with his father, including several that were judged grand champions at the Maryland State Fair. They had to make do with rabbits, his son said, until Mr. Wagner could afford to go into cattle raising.

Robert E. Wagner, 90, of Stone Mountain died of pneumonia Thursday at Emory University Hospital. A memorial service will be at 5 p.m. Sunday at Park Springs retirement community in Stone Mountain. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in honor of his wife, Bernice Wagner, to benefit Emory University's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, c/o Emory University Health Sciences Division, 1440 Clifton Road N.E., Atlanta GA 30322. Floral Hills Funeral Home and Cremation Services, Tucker, is in charge of arrangements.

Educated at Kansas State University and the University of Wisconsin, where he earned his doctoral degree in agronomy, Mr. Wagner began his career working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville, Md., experimental station. He went on to become chairman of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Maryland and later director of its agricultural extension service.

In 1975 Mr. Wagner came to Atlanta as president of the American Potash Institute, later renamed the International Plant Nutrition Institute. Richard Roberts of Cumming, the institute's former chief financial officer, met him at the airport and immediately took a liking to the personable Mr. Wagner.

"Riding into the city," he said, "Bob asked me how the golf was here -- he loved his golf. I told him he could golf every day of the year in Georgia. Over the years, he kidded me a lot about that whenever we had snow and freezing rain."

"Bob was good at organization and bringing people together," Mr. Roberts said. "He got the phosphate industry to merge with us and doubled the size of the institute."

Bobby Darst of Cumming, another institute colleague, called Mr. Wagner an icon in the field of agronomy and in the fertilizer industry. The institute now presents a grant named in Mr. Wagner's honor each year to outstanding researchers around the world, he said.

"Bob was recognized internationally as a leader and as a scientist. The two don't mix well, but Bob made them work," Mr. Darst said.

Another son, James Wagner, president of Emory University, remembers building things with his father -- a kind of go-cart and a sailboat when he was a boy, and later a 1929 Mercedes frame on a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle chassis. "It still runs," he said.

He said that over the past decade his father came to develop a deep interest in Emory. "After I took the job, Dad would read everything he could get his hands on about the university, even the student newspaper. And when we would go to lunch from time to time, he would grill me about the goings-on at school. Always the teacher, he was."

Also surviving are his wife, Bernice Wagner; and five grandchildren.