A “Celebration of Life” service to honor respected educator and leader among state high school sports circles Art Wagner is scheduled for Monday night at 6 p.m. at the Higley Center for the Performing Arts in Gilbert.
Wagner, the Higley Unified School District’s executive director of support services since and district athletic director, was found dead near Higley High School Wednesday morning. Wagner was 43.
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Gilbert police Sgt. Jesse Sanger said a school employee found Wagner’s body near the Higley High School campus around 8:45 a.m. Police said the matter is still under investigation, but believe Wagner died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“I have known Art for almost 20 years. ... Art was larger than life. He had that Texas confidence, as I like to say, that drove him to be a leader,” said Bruce Kipper, principal at Mountain Pointe High School. Wagner worked with Kipper at the Ahwatukee Foothills school prior to joining the Higley district. “Yet he always had this fun-loving demeanor that made him very likable. It was hard not to have fun being around Art.”
Wagner, who began as Higley’s district AD in 2009, was also nearing the end of his term as the executive board president of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, the governing body in this state for high school sports.
“He was a dear friend and my heart and prayers are with his new wife. I was just at his wedding three months ago,” said AIA chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt. “Art was a man who dedicated his life to advancing education and the lives of children. He will be missed. He was a good friend.”
The AIA released a statement Wednesday, which, in part, read: “The AIA Staff and Executive Board wish to offer their condolences to the Higley Unified School District, family members and friends of Executive Board President, Art Wagner. All of us are grieving this tremendous loss to our community and want to express our appreciation for Art’s long term dedication to education and interscholastic activities.”
In addition to his time with the Higley district and at Mountain Pointe, Wagner had previously worked at McClintock High School in Tempe. Both schools are part of the Tempe Union High School District.
“Art was someone who always put others in front of himself, whether it be kids, coaches or parents,” said Mountain Pointe athletic director Ian Moses, adding that he was still trying to make sense of the news.
Tempe Union superintendent Kenneth Baca released a statement to district employees Wednesday.
“It is with great sadness that I inform you of the passing of Art Wagner, former Tempe Union employee and athletic director,” Baca said. “I know this will be difficult for many of us as Art was a beloved man who did many great things.”
Brett Rincon, athletic director of Basha High School in Chandler, said he worked with Wagner at McClintock as Wagner was a security guard while working on his teaching degree.
“No job was too small or too big when Art was involved. The job just got done, plain and simple,” Rincon said.
Jim Denton athletic director at Combs High School in SanTan Valley also reference Wagner’s rise from security guard and equipment manager, to coach and school athletic director, to eventually becoming a high-level district administrator.
“Regardless of the position Art held, he was always making sure that students were taken care of,” Denton said.
Before playing football at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, Wagner attended Permian High School in Odessa, Texas.
It was there that he was a lineman for the famed Panthers football program that earned national acclaim in the book and movie of the same name, “Friday Night Lights.” Wagner was also featured in Sports Illustrated’s regular “Faces in the Crowd” section in 1987. As a senior at Permian at the time, Wagner won his third consecutive world junior skeet shooting title, according to SI archives.