Family and friends crowded into the Malverne Funeral Home Sunday to bid farewell to the village’s “unofficial mayor.”
Sheldon Wagner, 89, was a familiar face and a voice of unbridled optimism in the village square for more than 50 years. No matter the weather or how the Mets had played, he greeted friends, neighbors and commuters alike with a cheery wave.
Wagner, who was developmentally disabled, died Wednesday night in his sleep at Sunrise Senior Living in Lynbrook, his family said.
“Everyone agreed. You felt a little better when you saw him again,” said Herbert Brodsky, 74, a Malverne resident who attended the memorial service Sunday for Wagner.
Wagner, the youngest of three boys, was born in Brooklyn in 1929 and spent his childhood in Laurelton, Queens. When he was in his teens, his parents, Sidney and Eva, purchased a home on Sunapee Road in Malverne Oaks, said Wagner’s nephew, Sidney Wagner, 61, of Los Angeles.
As a boy, Sheldon was taken by his father to baseball games and horse races, and he developed a deep love for the Mets. His mother, meanwhile, made sure he was always included, taking him with her to the store or to friends’ homes in Malverne.
“People didn’t treat special-needs children like this back then, but his parents absolutely adored him,” Sidney Wagner said.
All the while, the Wagners and their two older sons, Arnold and Ted, set aside money in a special account to make sure Sheldon would never want for anything as long as he lived, Sidney Wagner said.
Sheldon’s father died in 1954. After his mother, Eva, died in 1971, Arnold moved into the family home and served as Sheldon’s caretaker until his death in 1993.
“His relationship with his parents and family was beautiful,” Sidney Wagner said. “I think that’s why he grew up so friendly and happy.”
In 1993, when Sheldon’s brother tried to get him to move with him to Florida, he refused. He even persuaded an attorney he met at the Malverne train station to call his brother and drive the point home: He would not leave Malverne.
Sidney Wagner said that, instead, the family spent two years hunting for the perfect studio apartment, across the street from the Malverne Long Island Rail Road station, and Sheldon Wagner couldn’t have been happier. Caretakers helped him prepare his food and took him to the doctor’s office, and he made daily check-in calls to Ted, until he died in 2009.
Mayor Patti Ann McDonald, speaking at the memorial service, thanked Wagner’s family for letting Sheldon remain in the village.
“He did so much for all of us,” McDonald said. “When you think of Malverne, you think of Sheldon.”
In a community Facebook group called “I Love Malverne . . . our village, our schools & our merchants,” hundreds of residents posted memories of Sheldon in the days after his death.
Some said they couldn’t imagine a Malverne parade without Sheldon in the crowd, or their morning commute on the LIRR without a cheery greeting from him and an update on the weather.
A GoFundMe page was also set up for a village memorial to Sheldon — perhaps a street near the park, or a bench like the one he so often sat on, according to Lori Lang, who runs the Facebook group.
“If you have a village and everyone knows you, well, we have to do something for someone like that,” Lang said.
Sheldon left his beloved apartment in April, when he moved to the Lynbrook facility at the insistence of family members. He chose the assisted living home for its proximity to Malverne and, at least once a week, his niece, Sondra Wagner, said she’d drive him to the village square.
According to McDonald, Malverne’s annual Memorial Day Parade made a detour past Sunrise Senior Living so residents could wave to Sheldon.
“I always knew that Sheldon loved Malverne, but I never realized how much Malverne loved Sheldon back,” Sondra Wagner, 67, of Harlem, said during the service.
Sheldon was buried at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, Queens.