Ted Wagnon, a longtime Little Rock communications professional who made Arkansas Business’ reputation as its first editor with an expose that embarrassed Bill Clinton and Arkansas’ business establishment, died Saturday.
He was 68.
The Ouachita County native, who spent the last eight years as managing director of Wagnon Strategies in Little Rock, scored his big journalistic coup in 1984, exposing a ballyhooed plan for the state’s first high-tech industrial park, Bioplex International, as an overblown scam.
Wagnon’s reporting on Paul L. Simmons’ dubious project, which the state had begun to fund with millions in startup money, established the fledgling newspaper’s seriousness and toughness, Wagnon’s former co-workers recalled.
When Simmons appeared from Florida in the 1980s, Arkansas was desperately seeking high-tech projects and Wagnon had just hired on with Arkansas Business entrepreneurs Alan Leveritt, Olivia Farrell and Dan Owens.
“That's when we first earned our stripes as credible journalists,” said Farrell, who oversaw the paper for 25 years as CEO and principal owner of Arkansas Business Publishing Group. “[Simmons] had tricked all the business leaders and Governor Clinton into believing he was going to build this high-tech center to put Arkansas on the map,” Farrell said, but Wagnon saw red flags. Leveritt, the Arkansas Times publisher and Farrell’s former partner, said their trust in Wagnon paid off.
"You cannot imagine the pressure Arkansas Business got from the business community to back off that story," Leveritt said on the paper’s 15th anniversary. "That's the first time I was told I was anti-business."
The business community “came down on us like we were protesting economic advancement,” Farrell said, recalling “lots of threats and ad pulls for endangering this wonderful new project, but the more we dug the worse it got.” After Wagnon’s expose, “we became heroes,” she said, for preventing the state from throwing good money after bad.
"That story had enormous impact,” Leveritt said. “It made the reputation of the paper and gave Arkansas Business credibility, the kind that would have taken years and years to achieve. If we were wrong, we were out of business. But we believed we were right in our reporting. Ted's reporting was fabulous."
A former editor of the Benton Courier, Wagnon went on to a career in communications and crisis management, including years as a partner in VOX Global, a stint as senior vice president at Fleishman-Hilliard, and as principal of Wagnon Associates. Farrell summed him up as an editor: “He was smart as a whip, a great head for news, and a lot of fun.”
A daughter, Carissa Holsted, confirmed Wagnon’s death in a post on Facebook on Saturday, calling her father a man who loved words, but who “left us, peacefully, without saying a word after a short and surprising illness.”
Born Jan. 3, 1952, Wagnon grew up in tiny Stephens, population 900, and graduated from Stephens High School. He studied at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro before starting his journalism career.
“Ted had a very sharp mind and a quick wit,” said former CJRW public relations chief Richard McKeown said, recalling that Wagnon always began emails with a jaunty “Hi, Friend,” and never failed to ask about others. “He was one of those people who 'knew a lot about a lot,' which always made for stimulating conversations … He was always curious and wanted to understand the 'why' of things. Perhaps that was the journalist in him.”
Martin Thoma, who with his wife Melissa heads the Little Rock marketing firm Thoma, said they knew and worked for Wagnon for more than three decades. Melissa Thoma was an early art director for Arkansas Business, and the Thoma firm also collaborated with Wagnon on more recent projects for clients, he said. "Ted was a brilliant strategist, wise counsel and a helluva writer," Martin Thoma told Arkansas Business. "As notable as his professional talents were his personal attributes: a quick wit, an indefatigable raconteur, a fierce and loyal friend, an unwavering ethical compass."
Wagnon doted on his grandchildren and family, friends and relatives said. In addition to Holsted, Wagnon is survived by his wife, Karen Ligon Wagnon; daughter Amy Wike of Springdale; son Jason Wagnon of North Little Rock; and son Jody McDonnell of Austin, Texas; as well as several grandchildren. Full survivor and funeral details were pending Monday morning.
“Ted was a trusted communications strategist clients knew they ought to listen to, even when he told them things they might not want to hear,” McKeown said, finding one key to Wagnon’s success as a counselor. “He could challenge and encourage in the same sentence by his wisdom and his manner. That's a rare quality, but a valuable one in a counselor, and in a friend.”