Most every day for the past 50 years or so, Malvernite Sheldon Wagner walked through the village, holding his transistor radio to his ear as he listened to sports games, especially baseball. He started as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants until they both moved to California in 1957. As he ambled along, Wagner would greet people and discuss his favorite subjects: politics, the weather and the New York Mets, after the team was founded in 1969. Wagner, who celebrated his 89th birthday on May 6, died of natural causes on May 30.
There was standing room only as Wagner’s family and friends filled the Malverne Funeral Home on June 3 to remember him. Many of his family members were surprised to see the outpouring of support.
“It renewed my faith in humanity,” said Wagner’s nephew Sidney Wagner, who lives in Los Angeles. “He obviously touched something that made them feel good, and he brought out the good in people. That was Sheldon’s gift to the world.”
The youngest of three boys, Wagner was born in Brooklyn in 1929 and spent his childhood in Laurelton, Queens. His family moved to Malverne Oaks in the late 1940s. Wagner, who had an intellectual disability, had a close relationship with his parents, Sidney and Eva.
“When I was younger, I knew that he was different and that he needed special care,” Sidney said, “but his parents made it their priority to make sure that he was happy and healthy.”
Wagner’s father died in 1954, and his mother died in 1971. After his mother died, Sidney said that Sheldon’s oldest brother, Arnold, moved in and took care of him until his death in 1993. Sheldon’s second brother, Theodore, who died in 2009, had planned to relocate him to Florida, where he would be closer to family. Sheldon, however, refused to leave the village.
Wagner’s cousin Mici Arnold-Dix, who grew up across the street from him, jokingly said that he was stubborn. “He always knew what he wanted. It didn’t have to be much,” she said. “For him, it was Malverne.”
Sidney said that Wagner wanted to live independently. His only rule was that he had to call Theodore every day. His family also hired caretakers who cooked his meals, cleaned his apartment and helped him with any other needs. Caretaker Terray Gregoretti and her sister, Lauren Maidhof, helped Wagner out for more than a decade.
“Over the years, it really progressed into more of a friendship,” Gregoretti said. “Eventually, he became like family to us.” Gregoretti added that Wagner attended several family gatherings with her, including holiday dinners and wedding ceremonies. “I think it gave him a sense of purpose and a sense of community,” she said of the village’s support.
Many of Wagner’s relatives believe that the reason people referred to him as the unofficial mayor of Malverne was because of his connection to the village.
“It was just his presence and his friendliness. I’m pretty sure that’s how he earned his nickname,” Arnold-Dix said. “If he ran, I think he would’ve been the official mayor.”
“He’s had the nickname for a long time, and we always knew that,” said Wagner’s neice, Sondra, “but it was astonishing to see how much the people of Malverne cared for Sheldon.”
Sidney said that in 2003, Wagner was honored with a trophy during the village’s annual Veterans Day ceremony because he often attended village events. When he moved to Sunrise Senior Living in Lynbrook in April, Malverne Mayor Patti Ann McDonald and the village’s board of trustees agreed to reroute the annual Memorial Day parade to Franklin Avenue so Wagner and the veterans there could watch.
“He never got anything but love from people, so this to him was par for the course,” Arnold-Dix said.
“A lot of developmentally disabled people aren’t necessarily embraced and treated that well, but everyone loved Sheldon,” Sidney added, “I’m assuming, because he would disarm you with his gentleness, and he always [was] sort of jovial.”
Wagner is survived by many cousins, nieces and nephews.
A GoFundMe page was started by Don Pupke, of Malverne, on June 1 in the hope of holding a memorial to honor Wagner. As of press time, $3,811 had been raised, surpassing the a $2,500 goal. To contribute to his fundraiser, go to www.gofundme.com/in-memory-of-sheldon-of-malverne.