Brothers Earl, Ben and Ken Wagener have ties to Clemson that run long and deep.
The legacy began over 125 years ago when their maternal grandfather Benjamin Franklin Robertson deboarded at a whistle-stop train station and trekked a mile to the campus of the newly opened Clemson Agricultural College, where he was a member of the first graduating class in 1896.
Their uncle Ben Robertson Jr. ’23 wrote for Clemson’s student newspaper and served as editor-in-chief of the yearbook his senior year before his career as a nationally known journalist and World War II correspondent. His Southern memoir Red Hills and Cotton — An Upcountry Memory about growing up in Upstate South Carolina was first published in 1942 and is still in print today.
Their mother, Hattie Boone Wagener, was a longtime administrative support staff member at Clemson in the College of Engineering and Science for about 25 years.
Earl and Ken Wagener followed in their grandfather’s footsteps, earning Clemson degrees and becoming chemists.
The family’s four-generation Clemson legacy continued when Ken’s son, David, earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2003 and Earl’s daughter, Emily, received her bachelor’s degree in food technology and processing in 2012.
“Clemson has played an important part of our family’s story for a long time,” says Ken Wagener, whose wife, Margaret Monroe Wagener M ’70, is also a Clemson alumna.
The Wageners’ Clemson story includes fire, floods, a single mother’s perseverance and a village’s collective helping hand.
After graduation, Benjamin Franklin Robertson began working as Clemson’s first state chemist.
From his lab on campus, he analyzed soil samples and tested fertilizer from across the state to ensure the proportions of ingredients in bags of fertilizer matched the labels on the bags. He came up with what the nation’s agricultural chemists called the Robertson method to differentiate the various forms of nitrogen in fertilizer, according to a 1973 article in South Carolina magazine chronicling his 50 years at Clemson. He was also named the state toxicologist, which required him to testify in murder trials whether somebody was poisoned to death, the article said. Twice he received death threats.
His agriculture lab evolved into Clemson’s chemistry department.
“He created a couple of chemistry courses, basic undergraduate courses,” Earl Wagener says. “It was clearly the beginning of the chemistry department.”
While he was an accomplished chemist, not all of Robertson’s experiments were successful.
“As we understand it, he set up an experiment, and it went wrong and caught the building on fire,” Earl says, noting details are scarce. He’s not sure his grandfather ever admitted his connection to the fire that occurred in the 1920s.
Following in Their Grandfather’s Footsteps
Earl and Ken Wagener followed in their grandfather’s footsteps, in both their successful chemistry careers and lab mishaps.
This spring, Ken Wagener received the 2021 American Chemical Society Award in Polymer Chemistry for his significant contributions to both industry and academia. Chemical & Engineering News credits Ken, a professor at the University of Florida and director of the Center for Macromolecular Science and Engineering, with pioneering the acyclic diene metathesis polymerization, which launched an entirely new field of synthetic polymer chemistry.
Earl Wagener led one of Clemson University’s most successful startup companies.
They are both members of the Thomas Green Clemson Academy of Engineering and Science, the only set of brothers to do so.
While their grandfather helped advance chemistry at Clemson, he doesn’t get any credit for influencing his grandsons’ career choices.
For Earl, that credit goes to D.W. Daniel High School chemistry teacher Mabel Richardson: “She was the guiding light for me. She was funny. She was brilliant. She just loved chemistry, and I picked up on her love for it. I found that I really enjoyed it.”
Earl earned his Bachelor of Science in 1962 and his Ph.D. in 1967, although there was a moment of doubt during commencement whether he’d actually get his hood from Dean Howard Hunter.
Years earlier, Earl Wagener’s lab on the fourth floor of Brackett Hall flooded when a condenser broke. Eventually, the water made it down to Hunter’s office on the first floor.
The following day, when Earl arrived on campus, the other professors from the fourth floor tried to get his attention and warn him to leave before the dean spotted him. It was too late. Hunter saw Earl and said, “I’d like you to come into my office.”
When they got there, all the dean’s photos and awards that had been hanging on the wall of his office were on the floor and floating in two inches of water.
Fast forward to commencement.
“Everybody knew the story,” Earl says. “So, he put the hood over my head and then looked over at the audience and pulled it back. When he did put the hood over me, everybody was clapping and cheering. He and I had an interesting relationship.”
After receiving his Ph.D., Earl spent 25 years developing new products at Dow Chemical and 10 years as vice president of research and development at Stepan, a specialty chemical products maker.
In 2001, Earl Wagener returned to Clemson and became CEO of Tetramer Technologies, a company started by a group of University professors. The Pendleton, South Carolina, company researches, develops and manufactures advanced materials and specialty chemicals.
Earl says most of the company’s employees are Clemson graduates and many hold Ph.D.’s, something that he finds especially gratifying.
“When I graduated with a Ph.D. in the 1960s, I struggled to find a job in South Carolina,” he says. He landed a job with Milliken but was laid off when the company downsized just three weeks later. To get his next job, he had to move to Midland, Michigan.
“At Tetramer, we have hired around 20 Ph.D.-level scientists, so we’ve created jobs for Ph.D.’s. in Upstate, South Carolina. That’s a particular point of pride for me,” Earl explained. While there, he co-taught a class designed to help graduate and undergraduate science and engineering students successfully enter industry.
Earl says he tried to talk his youngest brother out of pursuing a chemistry career.
“I ran into a professor named Harvey Hobson in physical chemistry,” he says. “Ken was considering chemistry at the time. I strongly told him to find another career. I told him, ‘Physical chemistry is very hard, and you will not pass it.’ You can tell how smart he was. He ignored me entirely.”
There was a time when Ken, who is six years younger than Earl, actually thought chemistry wasn’t the career for him because he wasn’t an outstanding student. Organic chemistry changed that.
“I found something I liked — and I still like it,” Ken says.
The middle Wagener brother, Ben, says Ken owes his career in chemistry partly to him.
“When I was taking chemistry at Daniel High School, I set up a lab in the attic of our home, and I had Ken and another person be the students,” Ben says. “I set up experiments I learned from my chemistry class. I gave them a test and posted their grades right outside the door. There’s no doubt Earl had a lot of influence, but I can say that I helped start Ken on his career in chemistry.”
After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Florida, Ken Wagener went to work for Dutch company Akzo Nobel’s American Enka Company plant in Asheville, North Carolina. He served as technical director of Membrana, Inc., an internal startup company that created the blood oxygenator used in heart-lung machines.
While he worked for American Enka Company, he taught organic and polymer chemistry as an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville and discovered he enjoyed it. He returned to the University of Florida and has been on the faculty since 1986.
Ken Wagener had a similar experience to his brother’s with a fourth-floor laboratory and a flood.
One morning, he saw a fire truck in front of the building. “That was somewhat concerning,” he sayds. He took the elevator to the fourth floor. When he got out, he saw firefighters coming out of his lab.
“That was concerning for sure.”
Water from a condenser in his lab had made its way to the first floor, which housed a Northeastern computer system for the state of Florida, “and we were about to put it out of business.”
Lab accidents aside, Ken has accumulated his fair share of awards and accolades. While the recognition is nice, he says, helping students matters to him the most.
“Awards for academics are just a way of doing business,” he says. “The awards help get students jobs and increase the visibility for a group of people, so they’re good to get. It’s fun to get the award, but they fade pretty quickly. The thing that I’m most happy with my work down here is that every person who has gone through our research group has a job. Some have retired, but they all got jobs.”
At chemistry conferences, Earl Wagener says he’s often introduced as Ken’s brother.
“I know where I am in the pecking order,” Earl sayds.
It Takes a Village
Ben Wagener is the only of the three who did not pursue a career in chemistry and did not attend Clemson. Instead, he entered the ministry, thanks mainly to Clemson First Baptist Church pastor Charles Arrington. Arrington was a father figure to Ben after the Wageners moved back to Clemson and the family home on Sloan Street after the death of Fred Wagener, Hattie’s husband and the Wagener boys’ father. Hattie, known as “Boonie,” never remarried. She took a job as an administrative assistant at Clemson, making $2,200 a year.
“We lived in the family home on Sloan Street, so we didn’t have to worry about that, but Mom struggled to raise a family on that amount of money,” Earl Wagener says. “All of us got jobs in the town. The whole concept of it takes a village is so true. Ben, Ken and I all got jobs. I worked in the cotton fields, in various places. We became aware as we grew up that people were taking care of Boonie’s boys.”
The Wagener brothers started the Hattie B. Wagener Endowed Memorial Administrative Award in memory of their mother and to recognize the invaluable contributions administrative assistants make to the College of Science and the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.
“Mom always said, ‘This guy has a Ph.D., and he’s the dumbest guy I’ve ever seen in my life. I tell you, if we didn’t know how to run the University, the University would go nowhere,’” Earl continues. “And that’s right. We wanted to raise awareness of how much real work the admins do.”
Hattie Wagener left administrative work to teach, first at the preschool Head Start program and then at T.L. Hanna and Westside high schools in Anderson, South Carolina, teaching secretarial science.
The Value of Education
“I believe the only real education is continuing education,” says Ben Wagener, who attended Furman and eventually earned a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary.
He says his career choice compliments and doesn’t conflict with that of his brothers.
“Science and religion are very compatible, although it seems to many people that they are at odds with each other. We lose on both sides if we deny one or the other,” he says.
That doesn’t stop the teasing, though.
“They tease me I’m the black sheep of the family because there are so many scientists and chemists,” Ben says. “One day, Earl asked me teasingly, ‘How can you work for someone you can’t see?’ That’s a good question. My comment to that is that God is beyond our grasp but within our reach.”
He says that while the brothers take their work seriously, they like to have fun, too, and the banter between them makes that obvious.
“We enjoy being brothers. We’ve stayed close since the 1950s. Before the pandemic hit, the three of us would get together in Asheville, North Carolina, for a weekend every year, just the three brothers, because we have so much fun together,” Ken Wagener says.
While the brothers’ close relationship hasn’t changed over the years, they realize that’s not true of the Clemson in which they grew up.
“The town and the University were much smaller,” Ken says. “It was a great educational environment and living environment. Everyone knew everyone, and as a result, we had a really good life growing up and getting an education in Clemson. That’s been a part of me forever.”
Ben Wagener sums up Clemson’s effect on his family:
“Clemson, both the University and the town, is a huge, wonderful gift for each one of us.”