Families

Column: Before she died, his wife planned out her memorial tour. Now he’s following it to a T – college bars and all

Lorraine Wagner had it all planned out. Where she wanted her husband and kids to visit after she died. Where she wanted memorial celebrations held. Who should be invited. What prayers should be recited. Where she wanted her ashes to be spread.

"Down to a gnat's eyebrow," Chuck Wagner, her husband, told me.

After Lorraine passed away in May 2018 at age 73, after close to a decade with achalasia, a condition that closes off the esophagus, Chuck set to work living out her wishes. Sometimes alone. Often with Steve, their son, who lives near his dad in Tucson, Arizona. Sometimes with Laura, their daughter, who lives in Sacramento, California.

Hawaii was the first destination. Chuck and Lorraine met there in July 1968 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. Chuck was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base. Lorraine was on vacation from her teaching job in Florida.

"I asked my friend why he wasn't dancing with the beautiful woman sitting next to him," Chuck said. "He replied, 'She doesn't dance.' Lorraine added, 'I'd be glad to dance with you.' "

They were married the following June.

Forty-nine years later, in June 2018, Chuck, Steve, Laura and Laura's kids embarked on a two-hour boat trip to memorialize Lorraine. (Lorraine's idea.) A Hawaiian clergy member and a Hawaiian ukulele player accompanied the Wagners and the ship's crew. They sang and told stories. Bottlenose dolphins played alongside the boat. (Lorraine's directive from above, Chuck is certain.) They deposited some of Lorraine's ashes into the Pacific in an environmental urn, which biodegrades.

"The spot is GPS-marked so some of my ashes can be deposited at the same spot," Chuck, 71, said.

They stopped at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and asked a few staff members to pose for photos. "Maybe one or more of them served Lorraine and me then."

The memorial trip, lovingly and painstakingly planned by Lorraine, has taken Chuck from Arizona to Florida to South Carolina. He's gone to Alabama and Nebraska and Iowa and Wisconsin. Lorraine chose spots that she loved before she knew Chuck, and spots she and Chuck knew and loved together. She chose spots where she lived as the frequently moving child of an Army officer during WWII. She has Chuck visiting the gravesites of her ancestors and her favorite college haunts.

Chuck estimates he's driven about 11,000 miles memorializing his wife.

It keeps him busy. It keeps him connected to the woman he so dearly loved, whose name still lights up his face.

Through a friend of a friend, I met Chuck during the Chicago portion of his trip.

This city plays a leading role, after all, in the love story of Chuck and Lorraine: He proposed marriage in her '64 Mustang at O'Hare International Airport. ("Outside parking," Chuck told me.)

He was on a 30-day leave around Christmas 1968 and flew home to visit his parents in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where he was born and raised. Lorraine drove up from Florida to meet him.

"We were sitting in her car, and I said, 'We've got to get going. I want to get to Fond du Lac before 5 o'clock–' and she said, 'Why?' " Chuck recalled. "I said, 'Well Uffenbach's closes at 5.' She said, 'What's Uffenbach's?' I said, 'It's a jewelry store my family uses.' She said, 'Are you asking me to marry you?' And I said, 'Yeah. I guess I am.' "

Uffenbach's was still open. They picked out a $100 ring. The newly engaged couple spent Christmas on Chuck's family's farm and New Year's Eve with Lorraine's family in Iowa. They were married in a small church in Fond du Lac six months later.

Chuck and Lorraine Wagner outside the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., in November 2013.

Chuck and Lorraine Wagner outside the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., in November 2013. (Courtesy of Chuck Wagner)

Lorraine's paternal grandmother, Ada, was adopted from an orphanage in Chicago in 1882. Lorraine kept letters that Ada, as an adult, wrote to officials in Cook County, trying to locate her birth parents. During their Chicago visit last week, Chuck and Steve tried to locate the orphanage, listed in the correspondence as 68 Center St., but to no avail.

They also visited the American Girl store, a favorite spot for Lorraine, who collected dolls, and ate at RL, the restaurant in the Ralph Lauren store on Michigan Avenue, which Lorraine enjoyed during a visit some time ago.

"This is extremely cathartic for me," Chuck said. "It's keeping me engaged. She's been gone 14 months, and I've been traveling probably four of those months. Like I told the kids, 'This is keeping mom with me longer.' "

Lorraine attended the University of Iowa for her freshman year, before transferring to Indiana University to complete her degree. Lorraine wanted Chuck's travels to take him to the Airliner, an Iowa City pub where she "borrowed" (her words) a women's restroom toilet seat for her then-boyfriend's fraternity pledge task list.

"I have no idea how she could've gotten a seat off because Lorraine was not that mechanically inclined," Chuck said with a laugh. "But, whatever. She evidently did."

Chuck and Steve visited the Airliner, ordered a pizza – "almost as good as Uno's," Chuck said – and told their server the story. She even went in the restroom and took some photos for them. Just to have.

Another favorite stop was Mobile, Alabama, where Lorraine asked Chuck to find the dock where she used to sit as a child and watch boats along the river. Steve accompanied his dad on that trip as well. After visiting the waterfront, they followed a billboard to a restaurant called Dauphin's and discovered, upon arrival, that they were underdressed for the 34th floor venue, complete with a pianist and cloth table coverings.

They explained their trip to the host, who happily seated them.

"When our dessert was delivered, we were stunned to see the waitress had had the chef write in chocolate on the bowl's edge, 'In Loving Memory of my Wife' for me and 'In Loving Memory of my Mom' for Steve," Chuck said.

The trip, in addition to reminding him of Lorraine's good heart and playful spirit, is renewing Chuck's belief in the goodness of strangers, many of whom have embraced and enhanced his travels.

"My mom was really special," Steve Wagner, 41, told me by phone from Tucson, where he works as an attorney and certified public accountant. "She had that spirit of living for every day. She would always say, 'I never wanted the party to end.' "

Now her family is extending it, inviting family and friends and new people along the way.

"She did this for us," Chuck said, about the memorial plans. "Her love for our family is never-ending. And we're following it to a T."

He spent a few days in Fond du Lac after leaving Chicago. He visited the church where he and Lorraine married. Laura, their daughter, joined him for a few days. Then he set out for the drive back to Tucson, stopping at a few more spots in and around Sioux Falls, South Dakota, along the way.

Even when he's not on the road, Chuck said, he feels as if Lorraine is with him.

"Whenever I'm golfing and I see a hummingbird or a butterfly, I say, 'Hi, hon!' " he said. "We had an unbelievable life together."

Still do, I'd say. What a beautiful thing.

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(Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)

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