John H. Hager, a moderate Republican who persevered over polio to serve as Virginia’s lieutenant governor and hold other key state and national posts, died Sunday. He was 83.
Mr. Hager, a former tobacco executive, was lieutenant governor from 1998 to 2002, presiding over a state Senate that was under Republican control for the first time in more than a century. The native North Carolinian and longtime Richmonder was an emblem of the once-dominant centrist wing of the GOP and for years a buoyant presence at party and charitable functions.
Mr. Hager, making campaign stops in a wheelchair, sought the Republican nomination for governor in 2001, losing to Attorney General Mark Earley, who was defeated in the general election by Democrat Mark Warner. Mr. Hager went on to become the top state security assistant to Warner after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania. He also served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush.
Mr. Hager later briefly was chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia but was forced out in 2008 in a conservative revolt. He also was an avid wheelchair racer.
Mr. Hager and his wife, Margaret “Maggie” Hager, were in-laws of the Bush family. Their second son, Henry, married President George W. Bush’s daughter Jenna in 2008.
Politicians across the aisle, from Democratic U.S. Sens. Warner and Tim Kaine to House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, issued statements praising Mr. Hager’s public service.
Gov. Ralph Northam said Mr. Hager “devoted his life to public service, and I admired his love for our country and for Virginia.” Northam ordered Virginia state flags to be flown at half staff for 10 days in his honor.
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said in a statement: “Today, Virginia has lost a leader who dedicated his life to our commonwealth and its citizens.” He called Mr. Hager “a truly inspirational leader” and credited his “exemplary stewardship” in presiding over the state Senate.
Kaine said in a statement: “John Hager served his city, Commonwealth, and country well. He inspired me. I’m proud to call him a friend, and Anne and I are thinking about Maggie and his wonderful family.”
Warner called Hager “a great Virginian, who, despite the remarkable obstacles he faced in his personal life, was able to persevere and give back to his community.”
In his autobiography, “Best Seat in the House,” written with Nancy Wheeler, Mr. Hager noted that life was good in the summer of 1973. He was 36, a successful executive with a happy marriage and a newborn son, when he was about to take one of the top jobs at the American Tobacco Co. in New York.
Then came what Mr. Hager calls “the curveball.” He was stricken with polio, which eliminated his ability to walk and in Mr. Hager’s words turned his life “upside down.”
The memoir details how Mr. Hager rebuilt his life and career while striving to look beyond disability and “make the wheelchair disappear.”
Mr. Hager was born in Durham, N.C., in 1936. Following in the footsteps of his father, Virgil Duke Hager, Mr. Hager graduated from Purdue University and became an executive at American Tobacco.
Mr. Hager, who had also earned an MBA at Harvard, met the former Maggie Chase in 1970 at the Country Club of Virginia, of which he would later serve as president. The couple wed in 1971 — two years before Mr. Hager was hit with polio.
The Hagers’ first son, Jack, was born in May 1973. That summer, the Hager family was preparing to move from Richmond to New York, where Mr. Hager was to assume his new post as executive vice president of American Tobacco. Mr. Hager wrote that on July 31, he went for a jog on Grove Avenue. Somehow he fell down and knocked himself out. He wrote that for the next few days he felt “enormous pain and stiffness.”
Mr. Hager wrote that he passed on his going-away party and headed home. “Maggie found me lying in bed, and over the next 18 hours, paralysis gradually crept up my body — beginning at my ankles, then through my calves, on to my knees, steadily moving upward until I was paralyzed from my neck down.”
Initial diagnoses were incorrect. It was polio.
Mr. Hager wrote that his infant son had been given a dose of the Sabin polio vaccine, “an oral vaccine with live polio virus.” The child was sleeping in a room with his parents because it was the only room in the house with air conditioning. The infant got sick during the night, and in cleaning up, Mr. Hager came in contact with the live virus.
He wrote that “though it would be days before I felt the effects and months before I was diagnosed, in that dramatic moment my life turned upside down.”
Through months of arduous physical rehabilitation in which he came to grips — physically and mentally — with life in a wheelchair, Mr. Hager resolved to remain “a doer and not an observer.”
He returned to American Tobacco and, by the mid-1990s, he served as treasurer of the state GOP. In 1996, he embarked on his run for lieutenant governor, asserting that he had “the courage to lead, the experience to care.”
The next year, Mr. Hager was elected in the first-ever Republican statewide sweep, paired with Jim Gilmore for governor and Earley for attorney general. Mr. Hager’s Democratic opponent was L.F. Payne, a congressman who represented the then-Southside-anchored 5th District.