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Prized picture: Worthington man cherishes photo with Debbie Reynolds, 68 years later

WORTHINGTON -- The Wednesday death of actress and singer Debbie Reynolds probably had a slightly different meaning to Gary Wagner than most other Worthington residents.

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Gary Wagner (far right) is visited by Debbie Reynolds (far left) in 1948 during his 10-month stay at a Minneapolis heart hospital. (Special to the Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- The Wednesday death of actress and singer Debbie Reynolds probably had a slightly different meaning to Gary Wagner than most other Worthington residents.

Wagner, as a 10-year-old, was in the midst of an extended stay at the Valley Club Heart Hospital in Minneapolis, he shared Friday.

“I had rheumatic fever and it has infected the valves in my heart,” recalled Wagner, who added that he had mechanical valves installed 15 years ago.

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“They didn’t think he would make it out of there,” Wagner’s wife, Bev, chimed in.

Wagner wasn’t getting too many visitors at the hospital, he said. His parents would make the trip from Mankato when they could, but not many others would travel his way. It was 1948, and getting from one place to another simply took longer. (Wagner would learn that in another way, as he helped build Interstate 90 through Worthington decades later).

Then, one day, there was a special visitor: Reynolds, who was just coming into the public eye. According to Wikipedia, she was first discovered by talent scouts from Warner Brothers and MGM who were at the 1948 Miss Burbank contest.

Wagner said he didn’t know much about Reynolds at the time. There wasn’t that much to know yet, though, as her big break didn’t truly come until 1952, when she starred with Gene Kelly in the movie musical “Singin’ in the Rain.”

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“She was a famous singer, and that was all I knew,” Wagner said. “She sang ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon’ to us. … I don’t think there was any talking; it was just a promotional deal for her career.”

A photograph was taken of that occasion, as Reynolds is shown with Wagner and another young boy. The picture has hung down in Wagner’s “man cave,” for years, his wife said.

Wagner left the hospital some time after Reynolds’ visit and went on to work as a machinist in the Twin Cities for five years before beginning a career in construction. While working on the interstate near Worthington, her met Bev and married her in April 1973. He retired two years ago at the age of 76.

“He had two new valves in 2001, he had both carotids cleaned out and had a triple bypass in 1991,” Bev listed of her husband’s health concerns. “Now he has lung cancer, but they (doctors) think they’ve got it. They found it Aug. 16 - he had gone in for an X-ray of his neck, but they found a little spot on the top of his right lung. On Oct. 10, he went in had five radiation treatments five days in a row.”

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Still, Wagner points out that he has lived a far longer life than other youths that were at the heart hospital with him 68 years ago.

“One of the guys I was rooming with one morning didn’t make it out,” he remembered. “I woke up one morning and they were putting him in a body bag.”

Wagner said that an effort was made to reach out Reynolds some years ago to let her know that he had a picture of her from the 1948 hospital visit. He didn’t receive an answer back.

That didn’t keep from watching an old Reynolds movie Friday morning, two days after her death and three days after the death of Reynolds’ well-known daughter Carrie Fisher. And he plans to continue to cherish the 68-year-old photo for years to come.


“We show it to everybody we see, everybody that comes here,” Wagner said. “I just wish she would have written back and said she remembered it.”

Ryan McGaughey arrived in Worthington in April 2001 as sports editor of The Daily Globe, and first joined Forum Communications Co. upon his hiring as a sports reporter at The Dickinson (North Dakota) Press in November 1998. McGaughey became news editor in Worthington in November 2002 and editor in August 2006.
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