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Ann Wagner Harper: Finding the Silver Lining

Crooner Tony Bennett (left), Ann Harper and bandleader Percy Faith pose for a photograph in the WFBM studio in 1954. (Photo courtesy of Ann Harper)

“Look for the silver lining.” That musical line has been the personal mantra of Ann Wagner Harper for many years. During her days on radio and television and later as a professor at Butler University, Indianapolis, Ann often repeated these words as she blazed new trails for women.

The oldest of six children of the late Charles and Clara Wagner, Ann graduated from the former Sister of Providence high school, St. Rose Academy, Vincennes, Ind., in 1942. “[The Sisters of Providence] taught us everything — preparation for life and etiquette,” said Ann.

One sister in particular helped to prepare her for life and a unique career in radio and the fledgling industry of television. “Sister Maurelia [O’Brien, RIP] was the music teacher there, and she recognized my voice as being something worth continuing to educate and develop,” shared Ann.

Sister Maurelia told Ann that if she could find someone to pay for one voice lesson a week, she would then provide Ann with a second lesson for free. With Ann’s large family, she knew that this wasn’t possible. However, her Uncle Joe Wagner (RIP) stepped up to the plate.

“I will always be grateful to him,” said Ann. “That opened the door to my career.”

So in addition to a rigorous education, Ann honed her speaking and singing skills.

Since there was no money available for Ann to continue her education past high school, she took a job as a telephone operator. Two years later, Ann’s dream of attending college was realized when she won a voice contest sponsored by the Louisville Courier Journal and WHAS, Louisville, Ky. Winning this contest provided her with a full ride scholarship to the University of Louisville, majoring in music and working at the radio station.

“I didn’t want the classical education that the university taught. Where I wanted to be was at the radio station,” said Ann.

Wanting to learn all she could about radio and realizing that WHAS was too large for her to learn every aspect, Ann left the university. She returned to Vincennes, and by January 1946, she was working with the all male staff at WAOV. Ann programmed music, served as secretary and had her own show, “Silver Lining Time.”

Her stint at WAOV was a short one, as her well trained voice was soon sought by Art Berry and the Columbia Club, Indianapolis. Because her salary at the club was only $35 a week, she asked for help in getting a day job at WIBC, an Indianapolis radio station. Station owner Richard Fairbanks hired her “sight unseen.” With this much coveted job, Ann’s salary jumped to $75 a week.

On this radio station, Ann sang on the show, “PM Party,” with a full orchestra and served as a music librarian. She later had her own show, “Annie’s Almanac,” which she hosted and sang with a three-piece string combo.

With the televising of the Indianapolis 500 in May 1949, great changes were coming to the Midwest. Being a vocalist could provide one with a living, but being able to speak and announce could offer one greater opportunities and longevity. Due to Ann’s secondary education at St. Rose and her own ingenuity and talent, Ann could offer these speaking and vocal skills to radio listeners as well as to television viewers. Thus, Ann continued on radio at WIBC, but she also began testing the waters of television at WFBM-6, Indianapolis, where she became the first female vocalist on television in Indiana.

Eventually, Ann left WIBC when she was offered a position at WFBM radio as an announcer. After a year, Ann partnered with organist Sue Dillman for the half-hour show, “Ann and Sue.” When a well-known and trusted disc jockey died and successive male replacements didn’t pan out, WFBM license holder Harry Bitner decided to try a novel idea. He hired Ann as a disc jockey for the show, “Make Mine Music.” Thus, in 1950, Ann became the first female disc jockey in Indiana.

Ann quickly learned the technology required to be a disc jockey. Part of her responsibilities included conducting on-air interviews with such personalities as Patti Page, Doris Day, Tony Bennett and Bill Haley and the Comets.

“I went from nice, easy music to rock,” said Ann, who left the industry in 1960. “Charles suggested I quit while I was ahead and retire as a champ,” continued Ann, referring to her late husband Charles, to whom she was married for 49 years.

I feel it’s a matter of giving back.
– Ann Wagner Harper

Ann took that advice. But never one to rest on her laurels, she decided to finish her college education at Butler University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in speech in 1963, then taught high school and completed her master’s degree in education and speech.

She was then approached by the manager of WAJC, Butler’s student-run radio, to join the faculty in radio and television broadcasting. Ann was hesitant until Charles provided her with his wisdom.

“Charles said, ‘You know you can teach speech. Why don’t you see if you can teach radio and television?’”

Ann once again took his advice. She advised students and taught announcing and radio production. She later introduced two new courses, broadcast law and music in broadcasting. Starting as an instructor, she became a full professor, her proudest professional accomplishment.

Another proud moment came in 1985 when she was inducted into the Indiana Broadcasters Pioneers’ Hall of Fame. Ann retired from Butler in 1988, and she and Charles returned to Vincennes shortly thereafter.

Throughout her life, Ann has never forgotten the impact of Sister Maurelia and the Sisters of Providence.

Ann Harper is one of 125 biographical sketches in the Richard Fairbanks Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame at the Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis

“I would not have had my career if I had not had those voice lessons from Sister Maurelia,” said Ann, who has remembered the Congregation in her will and has financially supported the sisters in many campaigns. “I feel it’s a matter of giving back,” Ann concluded.

Yes, Ann Wagner Harper has always found the silver lining in life.

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Connie McCammon

Connie McCammon worked in the communications office for the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

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