Lea Wagner, former Great Lakes volleyball commissioner, dies at 78
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter January 8, 2014 6:00PM
Lea Wagner, former commissioner of the Great Lakes Region of USA Volleyball, died in December at 78. | Provided photo
Updated: February 10, 2014 7:23AM
Lea Wagner would have smiled at being compared to Cher or Madonna, but in the world of volleyball, she was so well known that people referred to her by her first name only.
“If you said, ‘Lea,’ everybody knew who you were referring to, no matter if you were in California or Massachusetts,” said Angelo Iasillo, finance director of the Great Lakes Region of USA Volleyball, the national governing body for the sport.
Mrs. Wagner had a hand in volleyball’s growth and popularity, he said.
“The Great Lakes Region is over 15,000 members strong, mainly because of Lea’s hard work and because she was so well respected on the national level,” he said. “She was the type who could pick up the phone and get the president of USA Volleyball” on the line.
In 1973, she became the first woman certified to become a national referee. In 1984, she was selected to be an Olympics scorekeeper. She was also the first woman to be first referee in the Men’s Open Division Final. For about 25 years, until her 2008 retirement, she served as commissioner of the Great Lakes Region for USA Volleyball, one of 40 regions administered by group. In the early ’90s, she was elected to the group’s board of directors, and she was named assistant vice president of the officials division.
Mrs. Wagner was one of the most influential women in the sport in the country, said Bill Kauffman, senior communications manager for USA Volleyball. In 1993, she won the governing body’s highest honor, the Harold T. Friermood Award, named for a man who was instrumental in volleyball’s entry into the Olympics, he said. In 1981, she earned a Golden Whistle award for officiating at USA Volleyball Open national championships.
Mrs. Wagner died of metastatic lung cancer on her 78th birthday last month at her Des Plaines home.
A daughter of German immigrants, she graduated from Lake View High School and played volleyball at the Lake View YMCA for the Chicago Women’s Volleyball Club. She knew Ed Lauten, one of the pioneers who developed the scoring system used by USA Volleyball, according to Great Lakes Region officials.
She married shortly after high school and had four daughters whom she raised in Des Plaines and Palatine, but she continued to play, coach and officiate, said her daughter Trina. She liked to take her children to Kiddieland and Santa’s Village, her daughter said. She enjoyed her rescue cat, Bennett, and watching “The Good Wife” and “Blue Bloods.”
She particularly liked “Blue Bloods” star Tom Selleck. One of her treasured possessions was a photo she took with Selleck after she refereed at a U.S. Open where he played with the Outrigger Canoe Club volleyball team, Iasillo said.
In 2012, she was inducted into the YMCA Volleyball Hall of Fame. The sport was invented at a Massachusetts YMCA in 1895 as a bracing but less physical alternative to basketball.
“What she did and accomplished really opened up the door for women,” said Dick Jones, who worked as a chairman of the YMCA Volleyball Hall of Fame committee.
In addition to her daughter Trina, Mrs. Wagner is survived by her daughters Terri, Sharon and Kathy; two stepdaughters, Rhonda and Holli; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Her husband, Sheldon, died before her. Mrs. Wagner donated her body to science. A memorial service is planned at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at All Saints Lutheran Church, 630 S. Quentin Rd., Palatine