Philip Wagner

1921 - 2014

Philip Wagner

Phil Wagner, pre-eminent cultural geographer and professor emeritus at Simon Frazer University passed away on March 5, 2014, aged 92, after a period of illness.

Philip Laurence Wagner was born on October 7, 1921, in California and raised in Los Gatos near San Francisco. He was educated at the University of California, Berkeley, where he took all three degrees.

His bachelor’s degree was a double major in Russian language and Russian and Eastern European history (1947), an interest he continued in his master’s in geography with a thesis on “Russian Exploration in North America” (1950).

He then changed geographical area for his doctorate. He was one of the first generation of graduate students in the Berkeley School of Latin Americanist Geography under the supervision of Carl Sauer. His fieldwork in Costa Rica resulted in a thesis on “Nicoya: Historical Geography of a Central American Lowland Community” (1953).

Between 1953 and 1954, while serving as 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he taught courses to military personnel in the Far Eastern Program of the University of California Extension. It was here that he met Robert K. Hall, a famous linguist, who taught him Japanese and how to write Kanji characters.

After discharge from the military, Wagner gained an appointment as a research associate in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Program at the University of Chicago. In 1955, when Chauncy Harris became the Dean of Social Sciences, he elevated Wagner to a regular appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography.

Based on a course he taught on economic geography, he wrote The Human Use of the Earth (1960) in which he broke with convention and emphasized ecological, technological and even sociological factors rather than the economic order as such.

Working with Marvin Mikesell, they jointly introduced cultural geography as a new course in the Department of Geography. The shared venture led to the publication of Readings in Cultural Geography (1962), which became a staple textbook for the next four decades.

While a faculty member in the Department of Geography, he was also involved with the Anthropology Department’s Chiapas Project in Mexico. It was in connection with the Chiapas Project that he got the late David Hill interested in doing his doctoral dissertation on the changing landscape of Villa Las Rosas, a Mexican municipality in the Chiapas.

In 1961, Wagner moved to the University of California, Davis, where he was Associate Professor in both the Departments of Anthropology and Geography. He also spent some of his time teaching cultural geography at University of California, Berkeley.

The next move was in the fall of 1967 when he was appointed Professor of Geography in the new fledgling Simon Fraser University in Canada. His arrival immediately raised the visibility of the university and added stature to the geography department. Given his Berkeley, Chicago and Davis experiences, Wagner was asked to set up the Geography Graduate Studies program. He was also instrumental in helping the university to establish the Latin American Studies (LAS) program and participated actively in the LAS Field School including teaching on fieldtrips to Guatemala and Cuba.

In addition to these new programs, Wagner found time to promote interdisciplinary dialogue among faculty members and graduate students. Together with Dr Wyn Roberts, a professor of linguistics, they formed a weekly study group called the Pi-Digamma Seminar. It was a forum where interested colleagues, grad students and friends would meet to discuss any topic of interdisciplinary interest to the university community. Many who participated remember these exchanges as being some of the best dialogues they ever had during the early years at Simon Fraser University.

During this period, Wagner was also Editor of the Prentice-Hall Foundations of Cultural Geography Series. Under his editorship, six volumes were published including his own Environments and Peoples (1972), as well as Sopher’s Geography of Religion (1967), Rapoport’s House Form and Culture (1969), Isaac’s Geography of Domestication (1970), Zelinsky’s Cultural Geography of the United States (1973) and Hart’s Rural Landscapes of the Western World (1975).

Wagner became a member of the Association of American Geographers in 1953. As an active cultural geographer, he was much sought after by AAG Committees, serving as a Councilor of the Steering Committee of the High School Project, as well as a member of the College Commission of Geography. He was also a member of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers and served as their Vice President and President (1972-4).

In 1987, Wagner was presented with the AAG’s highest honors award for distinguished contributions to the geographic profession. The citation recognized “his unwavering dedication to scholarship, his distinguished career in cultural geography, and his numerous contributions to knowledge and to the geographic profession.”

Retirement as professor emeritus in 1987 did not bring an end to Wagner’s scholarly activities. His lifetime travels and observations in human communication motivated him to write his seminal work Showing Off: the Geltung Hypothesis which was published in 1996. The book is an exploration into human communities, and the desire for recognition and status in human behaviour. It is such behavioral expressions and feedback that affect the spatial organization of human performance and provide the artificial environment for geltung, i.e., the feeling of importance and worth in being recognized. It was his hope that geltung would attract cultural geographers and social scientists to seek and to explore their understanding of communicative behaviour in the human-environment interaction continuum.

Wagner should not only be remembered as an innovative and creative scholar but also a competent linguist. He could speak, read and write half a dozen languages (English, German, French, Spanish, Polish and Russian) and could read at least another half a dozen languages (Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese and Farsi).

He was also a talented artist. He drew and sketched on fieldtrips around the world which included all the pilgrim tombs, temples and stone mosques that he visited when he wrote his article on “Pilgrimage: Culture and Geography” in Sacred Places, Sacred Spaces (1997). Some of his sketches can be seen on his website.

The death of Phil is a great loss to geography. He will be dearly missed by all those who knew him as well as those who were influenced by his writings. He leaves behind his beloved wife, Margaret, son, Tomas, and granddaughter, Bianca.

For a more detailed treatment of Philip Wagner’s career, personality and academic contributions, see Wong, S. T. (1992) “Philip L. Wagner: An Appreciation” in Shue Tuck Wong (ed.) Person, Place and Thing: Interpretative and Empirical Essays in Cultural Geography Baton Rouge, LA: Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University, pp15-30.

With thanks to Shue Tuck Wong, Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University for preparing this obituary.