Campus Closeup: Chris Wagner


No offense to Chris Wagner (HelpDesk), but most of us would prefer to stay away from his work environment as long as possible. A visit to the HelpDesk is usually a last resort and synonymous with computer issues we can’t fix ourselves. But it’s a hate-love relationship. As the name implies, the HelpDesk is in the problem-solving business. Many are grateful for its presence on campus and the virus alerts Wagner sends via e-mail. Telephone systems even supplied the department with a phone number that evokes a cheer of gratitude for the expertise it provides: “2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate?!”


To put it in perspective, the HelpDesk responded to roughly 32,000 requests for assistance over a recent one-year period. As manager, Wagner supervises three full-time staff and 38 student employees. The HelpDesk has created an internal wiki, which Wagner uses as a manual for HelpDesk staff and can easily be corrected, updated or expanded. His position was created with the advent of the notebook computer initiative.


Wagner was originally hired as the first full-time staff member in the former Academic Computing department nearly 25 years ago. He had previously worked as a service manager at a local computer store and spent one year as a student employee in the Computer Science department. Wagner said Academic Computing reorganized several times to adapt to changes and needs that surfaced as technology evolved and expanded on campus. Considering where it is now with wireless and WiMAX, he entered the fray at a relatively primitive stage.


“When I started, there were about five computer labs on campus spread across different buildings,” he said. “I was responsible for managing the labs and providing maintenance for about 300 desktop computers. We didn’t have a campus network, so it meant lots of running around to address issues. There was some access to the Internet—primarily e-mail through the mainframe. Surfing the Web didn’t happen until later.


“In a sense, I’ve been offering computer support at Northern since I got here. With the desktops, it was both hardware and software. I don’t deal as directly with hardware and Micro Repair anymore. Most of the issues we see at the Help Desk are related to software. We can do more from one location with the network. And most of the machines on campus are laptops, so they can come to the Help Desk rather than support staff having to go to where the machines are.”


Wagner gained experience in electronics during a five-year stint in the U.S. Air Force. He was a bomb navigation systems technician at K.I. Sawyer. He had gone to a tech school in Denver—“one of the longer training programs in the Air Force”—to learn how to fix all but a few systems on B-52s. Because the last of these planes was built in 1961, Wagner gained experience repairing both analog and digital components.


The Air Force allowed Wagner to turn a personal passion into a career. He has a longtime interest in aviation that was triggered by the U.S. space program. Wagner was fascinated by the televised coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Neil Armstrong’s historic walk. When he was 10, his dad was stationed at the naval base in Charleston, S.C. Wagner was excited to catch a glimpse of a Lockheed C-5A Galaxy, one of the largest military cargo planes. “I found out later working here at Northern that former WNMU-TV engineer Earl Littich worked on the electronics systems of both a lunar module for the Apollo program and also the C-5A I saw flying over Charleston. It just happened to come up in a conversation we had.”


At one of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) conventions in Oshkosh, Wagner said he was fortunate to see three significant aircraft up close: SpaceShipOne, winner of the X-Prize as the first successful private manned spacecraft; the Global Flyer, the first jet designed for an uninterrupted solo circumnavigation of the globe; and Glacier Girl, a WWII plane that crashed on the Greenland ice sheet. Searchers drilled through 268 feet of ice to locate and recover the remnants. The plane was later rebuilt.


On a much smaller scale, aviation has become a favorite hobby of Wagner’s. He is an active member of the Sands Model Airplane Club.

“The hobby is changing a lot, moving from fuel to electric power, and it’s become more affordable,” he said. “The batteries are smaller and lighter, so the planes are as well. You can buy one pre-assembled or build it yourself and you can get as sophisticated as you want. I would love to pilot a full-size plane, but that’s too expensive. I have taken rides in everything from a helicopter and small planes to bi-planes and float planes.”


Union and political activities also occupy Wagner’s time. He is treasurer of the Marquette County Democratic Party and secretary of both the Marquette County Labor Council and UAW Local 2178 on campus. For recreation, he enjoys cross-country skiing and bike riding.


Wagner’s first wife passed away too soon, leaving him with two sons. The oldest is now a chef near Madison and the youngest is enrolled at NMU and studying abroad in Germany. Wagner later remarried and inherited a stepdaughter.



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Updated: February 3, 2011

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