In November, Bill Wagner retired as Grant Township Clerk after 57 years in the office (it would have been 58 years in April). He says that though he never campaigned for the office, he is proud to have served and never thought about not running again until four years ago, when he decided that his declining health precluded another term.
At the age of 85, he finally gave up the position and the responsibilities he had taken on since he was 27 years old.
Wagner says the highlights of his tenure are the work the township did on road improvements and the establishment of a first-rate fire department.
“I remember what the roads used to be in 1963,” he recounts. “In the middle of winter, you didn’t used to be able to get through on many of the roads. We did over 38 miles of road improvements.”
As for the township’s fire department, he says, “We established the department and, over the years, we got more equipment. Now we have one of the nicest in Western Michigan.”
Given his 57 years in office, Wagner notes how much things have changed over the years. When he began his time as township clerk he recalls, “We had a $6,000 annual budget. Now it’s around $600,000.” As clerk, he was responsible to implement the many changes in the election process.
“In the beginning, it was simple,” he recalls. “I took a sample ballot from the year before, made the needed changes, and took it to the (Oceana) Herald-Journal and had them printed.”
Then the township got some used voting machines from Royal Oak in 1970 — the kind where the voter pulled a lever. “I had no idea how to set them up, but a fellow came up from Muskegon County and helped me,” he remembers, “and then I set them up myself for 35 years.”
There have been many changes in other laws and the procedures required as well.
“Sometimes it was hard to keep up with all the changes. Every time you were ready to do something there was a change made.”
One change in the 1970s prompted Wagner to share a humorous story. He remembers going to a meeting where then Attorney General Frank Kelley spoke to officials from around the state about the new Open Meetings laws. Wagner was one of the younger people there and raised his hand to ask, “Are you really going to enforce this law?” Though Kelly responded, “Oh yes,” he then just continued his speech without discussing how enforcement would occur. Wagner chuckles as he says, “As we left the meeting, the old-timers were grumbling, ‘Who’s going to follow that law?’ And really, no one did much with it for a long time. We never heard much about it again until the 90s, when a new generation pushed it.”
As township clerk, another of Wagner’s duties was the keeping of the minutes of board meetings, and he asserts that, except for the February, March and April meetings of 2020, when he was hospitalized and recovering, he never missed a regular or special meeting, and he typically went to the township 5-6 days a week.
All the time he served as township clerk, Wagner was also a farmer, as was his father before him. Sadly, when Wagner became ill three years ago, he had to get rid of all the cattle he had.
“They were a lot of work, but I looked forward to taking care of them,” he says.
There was no celebration of Wagner’s retirement because of COVID restrictions, and Wagner explains that he has no significant plans for retirement because of his health. “At 85, I don’t make a lot of plans,” he laughs.
As for his work as township clerk, he emphasizes, “I enjoyed the job. There were lots of controversies, but I enjoyed it.”