Remembering an Earlier 'Mr. Dexter': C. Bruce Waggoner's Enduring Legacy of Love and Leadership
It is easy to forget how much of our present-day success comes from those who have gone before us. And one of those visionaries, who first carried the moniker of “Mister Dexter,” was C. Bruce Waggoner, known in his day for his enthusiasm, vision, and love for Dexter.
“He became ‘Mr. Dexter,’” says his daughter Kandie Waggoner. “I didn't know that when I was growing up in Dexter when he was doing his tours and activities for the kids. But I knew he and my mom absolutely loved this little town.”
“My grandfather just loved to share the world,” adds grandson Brent Schultz. “When I was a boy, we would walk around town, and he would give me jelly beans, telling me they were vitamins because my mom didn’t want me having candy. But he would tell me all the stories of Dexter.”
Bruce arrived in Dexter in 1928. His parents had a farm on Daly Rd. “Growing up, my mom’s family had money, but my dad’s didn’t,” explains Kandie. “They lost their farms during The Depression and ended up just keeping the Dexter farm. In the third grade, my dad would bring mashed potato sandwiches to school because that’s all his family could afford.”
Those mashed potato sandwiches were how Bruce met his wife, Doris, in the third grade. A mashed potato sandwich is precisely how it sounds: mashed potatoes between two slices of bread. Little Doris saw Bruce eating those sandwiches day after day and asked her mother if she could start taking him something better to eat. She did, and that’s how they met.
One of the ladies at the Dexter Area Historical Society remembers Bruce telling the story and chuckling, “I didn’t have the heart to tell Doris that I liked potato sandwiches.”
Doris was the daughter of Otto Wagner, owner of the Dexter Cider Mill back then. “When they got married, she had the same last name, only spelled differently,” jokes Kandie.
Fast forward through the hijinks and adventures of a high-spirited and imaginative young man to the threshold of middle age to find Waggoner settling down into a life of public service in Dexter.
“About 1953, I became paymaster at the University of Michigan Medical School and handled about a $20-million-a-year budget,” Bruce wrote in his autobiography. “I drank even heavier. In 1960, I entered Brighton Hospital for alcoholism, and have not had a drink of any kind to this day.”
“He was an alcoholic, but it’s a good story because he quit in 1960 and never had another drink after that and helped others with the same problem,” says Kandie.
Waggoner’s leadership as Village President is how many remember him. A letter to the editor of the Dexter Leader dated May 16, 1962, somewhat humorously said of the Village President, “President Waggoner has stated that no complaint is too large or too small to listen to and to correct.”
In July 1962, he advocated for improving an unnamed park behind the fire station – Mill Creek Park North. Mill Creek Park was still underwater.
Waggoner told the Leader, “Dexter has provided for the residents a very scenic and well kept park, playground and picnic area that goes all but unused…It is my hope that the public will investigate and use the area provided for them so that the Council will be more inclined towards providing additional facilities as they are needed.”
A year later, Waggoner rounded up volunteers and earth-moving equipment to reshape and restore the park over several weekends. About the same time, the Village President Waggoner announced free parking had arrived in Dexter, not at a cost to taxpayers. “It’s a giant step forward,” said Waggoner of efforts by local government and businesses to attract more people downtown. "Dexter is really showing what co-operation can do.”
A few months later, in October 1963, Waggoner gathered volunteers to plant trees around town as he had begun a new tree-planting program. The Leader recorded the event with the headline, “Volunteers Plant 125 Trees in Display of Community Spirit.”
Waggoner won a third term as Village President in March 1964, with 89% of voters turning out for the spring election, perhaps a reflection of that community spirit he worked so hard to create. But even after he left office, he remained fully engaged with his hometown, which he loved so much.
In 1971, he opened a real estate office on the corner of Broad and Main. In 1974, he was General Chairman for Dexter’s week-long sesquicentennial celebration, helping bury the time capsule that will be opened during Dexter’s Bicentennial in 2024. He would go on to teach adult education classes on Judge Dexter’s founding of Dexter. Bruce also guided historical walking tours of the village. He helped establish the Dexter Business & Research Park to move manufacturing out of downtown.
But all the council meetings, governmental process, and administration never dimmed Waggoner’s sense of fun-loving wit.
“He had a great sense of humor,” says Brent. “One year, he went out and got a Christmas tree that was too tall. He chopped off the top, put the bottom in front of the big picture window, and fastened the top above it on the roof with lights and everything. He loved Christmas.”
“We had a fish pond in the living room,” adds Kandie. “He filled up a wading pool and filled it with fish. They kept jumping out, and my mother would shout, ‘Bruce! The fish have jumped out of the water again!’”
Brent remembers Bruce would tell kids stories of Dexter at Christmastime in Cousins’ Heritage Inn. He believes that is possibly how the mantle of “Mr. Dexter” was passed from Bruce to Paul.
“They were very good friends, Paul Cousins and my dad,” recalls Kandie. “They worked together really hard to help Dexter grow into what it has become today.”
Waggoner’s involvement and passion were instrumental in helping to improve Dexter’s streetscape and infrastructure. The May 10, 1995 Dexter Leader reports, “A GROUP OF DEXTER-area residents have begun meeting to research and analyze the financial aspects of the Dexter Community Enhancement Program designed by the Downtown Development Authority. The project includes installation of new sidewalks along Dexter-Ann Arbor Rd. and Baker Rd. to connect the village residential neighborhoods with the schools, realignment of several acute intersections, replacement of undersized water and sanitary sewer mains, a linear park and nature trail along the Mill Pond and other projects to improve the downtown and surrounding area.”
The benefits of which Dexter residents enjoy today.
Waggoner was behind the drive to get the town clock on the corner of Broad and Main. The October 26, 1995, Dexter Leader tells us, “A long-time Dexter resident who has campaigned for a historic clock downtown may just get his wish. Bruce Waggoner has collected $21,238 in donations from area residents and businesses since beginning his crusade 10 weeks ago. ‘I am just overwhelmed with the response,’ Waggoner said Monday. ‘I hope this will spark a positive attitude for renovations in the downtown.’”
Waggoner was involved in other ways, too. He helped organize Dexter District Library and the first chapter of Dexter Jaycees. He chaired the Red Cross of Washtenaw County and was on the University of Michigan Credit Union board. He was the local chairman of the University of Michigan Community Chest and a member of the Dexter Kiwanis Club. He also was active in the Dexter Historical Society.
When Waggoner turned 80, the town threw a party. The Leader headline read, “’Mister Dexter’ Turns 80, Hundreds help mark the milestone.” The article says he got the nickname “for his vast knowledge of Dexter and commitment to the village, sharing its history with schoolchildren for many years.” School classes would come to his yard, where he would give Dexter history lessons and begin his memorable walking tours.
Birthday celebrants showered Waggoner with accolades. “He is not judgmental or critical. Everything he says is constructive,” said one. And another noted, “He is so uniquely Bruce I don’t think there is anyone who compares.” And yet another put forth a big question, “Who is going to fill his shoes?”
"1 would have to say the greatest gift he has given me is to have a positive outlook on life,” said Kandie then. “He has taught me that if it doesn't work out, you can move it in another direction.”
In recounting Bruce’s life, the Leader reported this unusual tidbit. “Waggoner has demonstrated his commitment to country and community his entire life. He was drafted into the Red Arrow 125th Division of the U.S. Army in 1941. However, he was given a medical discharge weeks later after it was learned that his heart is on the right side of his chest, not the left.”
And who knows? Maybe that is what made him so unique – his heart was always on the right side.
“He has taught me to think positive about life and that you can accomplish anything,” Brent told the Leader at his grandfather’s party. “Always think big is how he put it. What that means is set your goals as high as you possibly can and do everything you can for your community.”
It isn’t easy to put into a finite space the infinite impact Waggoner had on Dexter. Digging into news articles, reading his autobiography, and speaking with his family reveal a man who daily set out to achieve something big or small, especially for his hometown. The list is long, and much of the Dexter atmosphere we appreciate today can be attributed to his initial efforts. Waggoner did good things for people who would never know him or even know it was him who initiated it.
Bruce passed away on Sunday, June 17, 2001, twelve days before his 83rd birthday. The Dexter Leader headlined, “Dexter loses its biggest supporter.” The article began with, “C. Bruce Waggoner knew Dexter’s history inside and out. Now he has become a part of it.” The town clock of which he was so proud was stopped at 4:30 p.m., the time he died.
“I think his knowledge and love of Dexter is really what he will be remembered for,” said businessman and former Village President Paul Bishop at the time. “He was ‘Mr. Dexter’ and will be remembered as that because he is irreplaceable.”
At the time of his death, Waggoner was still active, supporting the Dexter Area Historical Society’s efforts to purchase and restore Gordon Hall, village founder Samuel Dexter’s homestead. The society purchased Gordon Hall in 2005.
Bishop told the newspaper that Waggoner’s love for the town was well known. He wrote letters to downtown business owners encouraging them to fix up their property. When they did, Bruce would recognize it with a note of appreciation in the newspaper for improving the appearance of the downtown.
“He loved Dexter, and he wanted it to be improved,” Bishop said. “I think that’s pretty unique these days. He used to say, ‘If you make the downtown the place to be, no one else will want to be anywhere else.’”
Waggoner was many things to the community — a historian, a politician, the town’s cheerleader, and a positive role model. He played Santa Claus for children and dressed up as Uncle Sam during the Dexter Area Historical Society’s Pioneer Arts Fair. He and his wife were also involved in the Dexter Luminaria, and Bruce was a familiar face in the Dexter Daze parade. He was a past chairman of the Washtenaw County Red Cross and a former Dexter Kiwanis Club member. He served as president of the Dexter District Library Board and the Friends of Dexter Library group and was on the Dexter Area Museum board of directors.
“He certainly promoted Dexter to the end,” Bishop said. “Many of the things we have can be traced back to Bruce. He inspired many people to be part of the community and the council, and inspired people to become public servants.”
When asked what her dad might think of Dexter’s growth and development today, Kandie says, “He would love it! I love it! I am so glad we are what we are and have grown and have new people. I see children and young people that are the life of this town. We need them. If my dad were here, he would like them to understand a little bit about the history of this community because that helps them to propel forward.”
“I have always expected good things to happen to me and was always surprised as hell when it didn’t,” Waggoner wrote in his autobiography. “Of course, some of the good things that happened to me needed a nudge or, at times, a hard push by me.”
“I think one of my favorite memories of dad is every morning when he looked in the mirror after he got done shaving, he'd say, ‘Well, what am I going to do for my town today?’ says Kandie. “It was always his big goal as he felt strongly about those kinds of things.”
Bruce Waggoner’s legacy is a stark reminder that our success today is not merely of our own making but rather like standing on the shoulders of giants, elevated by the wisdom and toil of those who came before us.