Gov. Mike Pence recently awarded the Sagamore of the Wabash—the highest honor given by the governor of Indiana—to Special Assistant to the President David Wantz. Indiana Rep. Justin Moed nominated Wantz for the award because of his dedicated service to the community.
“Giving recognition is important for people that do good for our community,” Moed said. “Oftentimes that’s not why they’re doing it, but it’s important to recognize them for their work so they can be celebrated for it.”
Wantz has worked at the University of Indianapolis for more than 30 years. He also has served on many boards for community organizations, including public safety groups, Spirit and Place, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library.
“It’s a token of the university allowing me to do this stuff,” Wantz said. “… I see it more as a statement by the governor that the university’s investment in the community matters. I just happened to be an agent.”
According to Moed, though, Wantz deserved this award because of his personal passion to make the university and the surrounding area better.
“He doesn’t come asking for things. He comes asking how he can be a part of helping. And I think that’s a rare quality, and I think that’s why he’s had such an impact in the community,” he said. “… Because it’s not always just about him or what can we do for him. It’s about: how can we work together? And I think that that is the right attitude.”
According to President Robert Manuel, this award also recognizes Wantz’s strong track record of caring for the community around campus.
“His passion is simply to strengthen the quality of life for those people who live on the South side of Indianapolis,” Manuel said. “I think the Sagamore award is a fitting tribute to David’s life work, and a wonderful public moment to celebrate all that he has accomplished.”
According to IN.gov, “The term ‘sagamore’ was used by the Native American Tribes of the northeastern United States to describe a lesser chief or a great man among the tribe to whom the true chief would look for wisdom and advice.” The website states that the award was created by Gov. Ralph Gates, who held office from 1945 to 1949. Recipients have included “astronauts, presidents, ambassadors, artists, musicians, politicians, and ordinary citizens who have contributed greatly to our Hoosier heritage.”
Before becoming a Hoosier, a community leader and an academic, Wantz came from a blue-collar family in Maryland.
“I’m a first-generation college kid, and I come from people who made their living with their backs and their hands,” he said.
Wantz attended a university in eastern Tennessee that he chose because he liked to hike and the college was close to the Appalachian Trail. After completing his bachelor’s degree in sociology, he returned to Maryland where he worked in law enforcement before coming to Indianapolis to teach at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. Eventually he ended up at UIndy where he met his wife Susan Fleck, who was the university’s director of public relations at the time.
“I came to the university in ’82, and finished a master’s in business, and was doing management supervision training for the university,” he said. “President [Gene] Sease said, ‘If you’re going to stay in higher ed, you need to have a union card.’ So with two kids and a mortgage, I went back to school and finished my doctoral degree in counseling psych at IU.”
He then applied to an open position at UIndy and began teaching psychology and running the counseling center.
Wantz later spent 10 years as the vice president for student affairs before Former President Jerry Israel asked him to work as a community liaison. According to Wantz, Israel said that the position would be a good fit, because he lived in the community and, being a psychologist, was good with people.
Former President Beverly Pitts and Manuel both asked him to remain in this position. Wantz said that one of the biggest wrinkles that he helped smooth out was the Hanna Ave. construction project, which inconvenienced and initially upset many people in the neighborhood.
“Colleges and universities are pretty insular,” he said. “They don’t call them ‘the ivory tower’ for nothing.”
Wantz said that he has always wanted to help people, and he thinks that it really all comes down to his Christian faith.
“I really believe that I’m going to be held accountable for everything I was given and asked, ‘What did you do with it?’ I want to be told that I did well,” he said.
Wantz said that he did not want it to seem dismissive about the award, because he is proud of it—so is his family. But when sees the hard work that others put in every day to make the campus and community a better place, he said it does not seem fair that he was singled out.
“I’m awkwardly appreciative of it, and I am thrilled to be at the university at this time, because I think that we’re going to do some magnificent things. And I think Justin [Moed] is going to help us, and I think our city councilors are going to help us,” he said. “I think the whole world is watching us now, and I think we’re going to meet their expectations.”