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Whitney Wagoner is Taking a Break

She lost her husband to brain cancer. Now the former head of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center is trying to find herself.

By Bill King

It all felt wrong.

The drive to campus. The walk from the parking lot to her office. Scrolling through a budget. Taking a call from a donor. Once rudimentary, they now seemed familiar, yet foreign, remnants of a life she remembered fondly, but no longer owned.

Returning to work in November, four months after her husband died of a brain tumor that came suddenly and worked swiftly — he was gone less than eight months after the diagnosis — Whitney Wagoner knew herself well enough to realize that reengaging in this role, in this place, would not be easy.

She and her husband, Sean, met as students at the University of Oregon, where both were in the marching band. He earned his doctorate and taught in the music department. She went off to New York to work at the NFL, but returned to teach at the school’s renowned Warsaw Sports Marketing Center in 2004, assuming its leadership as director in 2015. They were married for 16 years and had two children. 

The campus was sure to remind her of what she’d lost.

Still, Wagoner wanted to try. Throughout the first few months after her husband’s diagnosis, she kept working, hoping that normalcy would help the family cope as he underwent treatment that at first seemed promising. Perhaps a return to the program she loved dearly would do the same now.

Sean Wagoner (top left) died in July at age 51 from brain cancer, leaving behind wife Whitney, daughter Sophie and son Cole.Courtesy of the Wagoner Family

Instead, her response was visceral. Her skin tingled. She itched. She thought it might pass, but it didn’t.

“It was a physical sensation,” said Wagoner. “I don’t fit here anymore because that was my old life. The fact that we were both at the university was part of our story. It was something we shared. This place. This commute. This parking lot. This is an old life that I don’t have anymore. And if I am going to give everything I have to what is next, then everything that is no longer available to me has to go.

“As simple as that.”

On the fifth day of her return, Wagoner notified Oregon business school dean Sarah Nutter that she would resign, effective Dec. 10. On Dec. 1, she sent an email to Warsaw alumni and program supporters, with the subject line: “An important message from Whitney.”

“Quite simply, too much has changed in my life — at the core of who I am — as a result of my husband Sean’s death this summer,” she wrote. “The grand mystery of my life’s journey has put me on a new course and the professional part of me must pivot, too.”

She explained that she hadn’t lined up a new job, but that she and her two children — 15-year-old daughter Sophie and 12-year-old son Cole — planned to remain in Eugene. She wrote that while she was leaving her role, she intended to remain engaged with the Warsaw Center. She signed it, “With earnest gratitude and a full heart.”

“Before Sean died, I would just talk about how shitty it felt if something didn’t fit. And we accept that,” Wagoner said. “You sort of say, well, nothing is perfect. If you want something great, it comes with challenges. We tell ourselves these things and accept it as truth.

“That first day back, when I was having physical manifestations of this no longer fitting me, I knew I had to walk away. I knew it because of my new level of clarity and awareness of the fragility of life. I cannot stay. I cannot accept it. I cannot find words to give myself an excuse to hang on. I know better now. Life is too fragile.”

‘THAT WAS OUR STORY’

There was kismet to their connection.

Whitney and Sean Wagoner met in the mid-1990s and stayed connected after college through their friend set. When Sean Wagoner married, Whitney was there as a guest. She was four years into a sponsorship sales job with the NFL when 9/11 hit. Looking to get away that winter, she decided to attend the Fiesta Bowl, where the fourth-ranked Ducks and star quarterback Joey Harrington were playing No. 3 Colorado.

Sean, who was recently divorced, had done the same.

They ran into each other by happenstance, two band alums reconnecting. They exchanged business cards. Phone calls led to visits, which begat a romance that had them flying cross country for a year and a half.

Opposites attracted. She was ebullient. He, introspective and reserved. She worked in sports. He had little interest in it. He was happiest when around interesting people, listening. She liked to talk. “He was good and honest and gentle and overflowing with integrity in just this quiet, graceful, gentle man body,” Wagoner said. “Deeply good and deeply honest.”

When she finished work on her NYU MBA, she landed the job at Warsaw. They married in 2005. 

“There is a mysterious, dare I say divine, algorithm to our story,” Wagoner said. “To serendipitously run into each other in a town where neither of us lived, to come together 10 years after we initially met with some life in our rear-view mirror, to be the yin and yang, the perfect complement, and then to have it end so early. That was our story. And, yes, it is sad. But we both fully believe that the tragedy of this loss is supposed to be part of our arch. That it is emblematic of this absolute lightning in a bottle, of all of these micro-moments that had to happen in a certain way to bring us together the way that it did.” 

There is no way to know how long Sean Wagoner lived with the brain tumor that took him with cruel and unyielding certainty. He had no symptoms until the Sunday before Thanksgiving of 2020, when he felt lightheaded, with some pain in his chest and difficulty moving his right side. They went to the emergency room, fearing a heart attack or stroke. When doctors found evidence of neither, they ran a brain scan that revealed the tumor.

Sean and Whitney met while members of the marching band at Oregon and were married for 16 years.Courtesy of the Wagoner Family

Soon after his diagnosis, he underwent surgery to remove it. He walked out of the hospital unaided 48 hours later, which everyone took as a sign of hope. Pathology showed the cancer might be Stage 4, but also could be Stage 3. He began chemotherapy — which was every bit the hell they feared.

After three months of torturous treatment, he underwent a scan to check his progress.

The tumor was back, larger than before.

Sean Wagoner accepted the prognosis with clarity and grace. If the treatment that made him deathly ill was unlikely to save him, he would forgo it. He wanted the days he had left to be more like the ones he had before.

“Everybody asked us if there was some big, epic bucket list,” Wagoner said. “And he said all that matters are the four of us in this house. And so all he wanted to do was to do the every day our of our lives together. So he checked homework and we watched ‘Star Wars’ and we listened to music and we just were together in a very run-of-the-mill every day sort of way. And that was perfectly emblematic of a person who never used the big shiny moments to be the ones that define living greatly.”

They made the best of the time they were given. When others suggested it was unfair that he was on the clock so early, facing terminal cancer at 51, Sean began to question why they saw it that way. By the end, he made a habit of correcting them.

“You don’t get it,” he would say. “If you live to tomorrow, that’s a gift. It wasn’t promised. Don’t assume it’s coming. It’s not a right to count on.”

‘YOU GET TO BE HAPPY’

It’s one of many lessons that Whitney Wagoner has taken from this last year.

“The truth is nothing is promised,” she said. “The truth is the only thing there is, is wherever we are right now. The truth is there are very few things in life that mean anything at all. And the truth is that you get to be happy. You get to make it so that you are happy. And everything else is noise. Everything else is a myth. Everything else is a construct. And if we collectively built those constructs, we can deconstruct them, as well.”

Wagoner, 47, does not know where the next phase of life will take her, professionally. She is buffered by financial stability, and for now, her focus is on grieving, and healing, and raising her children. 

She gets her kids off to school each morning. She’s a travel basketball team parent. She’s still dealing with the litany of insurance and banking transactions that go along with the death of a spouse. There are emails from concerned friends to return and thank-you notes to write. She serves on the boards of several community organizations.

She is trying to walk and exercise more. And to read more often. And to meditate, though it’s admittedly outside her nature.

The lengthy job title that until recently sat below her name on her LinkedIn page has been replaced by three words: “Taking A Break.“           

“The thing of which I am certain is that I am going to say ‘No thank you, not at this time,’ every day in 2022,” Wagoner said. “I don’t want to look back to this transition phase, ever, and feel some regret that I didn’t fully give myself the space that I am able to take.”

Those closest to her through the last year were not surprised by her decision. At the end of her first day back in the office, she texted colleague Craig Leon, the manager of the Warsaw MBA program, to say that being on campus was as unnerving as she’d feared. When she made her choice, he was the first person she told.

He said he loved her and understood her decision.

“Having been her friend through this long journey, we had a lot of deep conversations that you don’t normally get to have with your work colleagues,” Leon said. “It just seemed to me like she was at a different point in her life, so in some ways I was happy for her. She needed to come back to see it was time to move on. And now, when she’s ready, there will be something different and new.

“She’s talked about so many things that she might want to do going forward. And many of them are not related to what she’s done previously, with one exception. There’s a throughline that she wants to be able to help people. I think that she feels like she has a newfound meaning and purpose in her life.”

That’s the motivation behind the one new endeavor Wagoner has in her sights for 2022: She’d like to write a book built around the transformative lessons she has taken from the last year.

“I spend most of my time thinking about why it seems to take us having major trauma to wake up to some of these simple truths about our lives,” Wagoner said. “Why are we so muted? Why are we so robotic and so easily on board with scripts and constructs that the world has set out for us? And why does it take such a difficult moment for us to awaken from all of that?

“Maybe Sean’s death and this experience can make me a conduit to helping people get to this clarity while avoiding the trauma.”

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