The Howard J. Wenger Legacy — Learning, earning & returning: Local farmer, philanthropist remains humble
PHOTO BY LISA McGINTY | LMc Photography
From left, daughter-in-law, Jill, oldest son, Jeff, grandson Coy, Howard Wenger, Stephanie Wenger’s boyfriend, Greg, daughter, Stephanie, grandson Preston, wife, Sandy, youngest son, H.J. A family with a sense of humor who also are animal lovers, the Wenger family included some pets in this recent family portrait. Murphy is seen around the Wenger Companies headquarters, as well as Ace, who Stephanie is holding. Jill Wenger has Biggie Smalls in her arms.
PHOTO BY KURT IMMLER |DGKN
The softball field in Dalton was dedicated to Howard J. Wenger in 2022.
DALTON Ask Howard J. Wenger what he believes is one of his biggest accomplishments in his lifetime so far and he will tell you: “putting people to work.”
While his crowning achievement may very well be providing jobs for hundreds of people ever since he began Wenger Excavating 55 years ago, he also can say that he and his companies have helped to build and improve his hometown and neighboring communities.
At the same time, for decades Wenger has provided some services on his own dime to move developments forward, and he has donated and contributed to numerous organizations, projects and causes.
Howard Wenger’s eldest son, Jeff, who is president of Wenger Companies, describes his father as “the quintessential philanthropist.”
Many in the village, county and surrounding Northeast Ohio area likely have been in a facility, driven on roads, or benefitted from infrastructure or utilities installed by Wenger Companies, which is comprised of four corporations: Wenger Excavating, Northstar Asphalt, Stark Materials and Massillon Materials. However, not everyone may be familiar with what the 79-year-old CEO has done behind the scenes for his beloved Dalton. The school district has always been close to his heart, and along with that, Wenger continues projects involving housing developments to ensure the village will thrive for generations to come.
His daughter, Stephanie, who also has a top position in the company, said her father dodges any praise or glory.
“He is the most humble person that you’ll ever meet,” she said. “He’s contributed to a lot of things that people don’t even know.”
Greg Kutz, chief financial officer for Wenger Companies, said Wenger has been the push a project needed either by providing seed money at the very beginning, or by tidily filling in the remaining financial gap at the end for completion.
“It’s typical for Howard to see a need and when everyone is at a roadblock or a standstill, Howard will step in,” Kutz said.
Over the years, Howard Wenger has been a quiet catalyst donating either funds, time and labor – or all three – to many major local projects including the public library, the high school auditorium, track and wrestling room, and recently the high school girls’ softball field downtown. He has donated to the police and fire departments and helps to sponsor local events, activities and teams.
Kutz pointed out that Wenger has been actively involved in giving back to the community for more half a century. His name is on a plaque in the Dalton Branch of the Wayne County Public Library, but anyone would be hard-pressed to find his name on anything else in the public eye. In a rare move, finally this past year, Howard Wenger allowed his son Jeff to talk him into having his name attached to the high school’s softball field.
Wenger Companies and other businesses and individuals made the project possible that members in the community have had their hearts set on for years, and had been progressing surely – but slowly. Dalton High School’s softball team was the only sports team without its own space. The team previously had played on the softball field owned by the village not far from the busy U.S. 30 and state Route 94 intersection. The field was dedicated as the Howard J. Wenger softball field on July 12.
“He never helped any cause because he wanted recognition for it,” Kutz said. “He doesn’t like his name up in lights.”
Wenger also has done some fun things along the way just as a sort of gift to the community. You know that antique barn along U.S. 30 just outside of the village that was restored and repainted last year? It could’ve been demolished, explained Merle Wenger, one of Howard’s younger brothers. Instead, Howard brought it back to life in its original color. He sought out a renowned mural painter and the barn was painted black with the iconic “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco” advertisement standing out on the side in bright yellow. Harkening back to the barns of his youth, the local landmark serves as eye candy for motorists and history enthusiasts.
“He likes to contribute locally as opposed to some national things,” said Kutz, who has worked for Wenger for 37 years, “to help his hometown, his home community, his home county,”
The local businessman’s humble beginnings as a son of conservative Mennonite farmers may be attributed to his dedication to working hard and helping others without seeking any recognition or fanfare.
While his three children, Stephanie, Jeff and HJ (Howard Jay) were in school, Howard Wenger served on the Dalton Local Board of Education. He specifically chose to give 12 years of his time to the school board in return for the 12 years of education he received. He grew up attending Wadsworth schools for elementary school but began attending Dalton schools in fifth grade. Wenger graduated from Dalton in 1961.
Howard is the only one of Morris and Mabel Wenger’s 11 children who did not go on to higher education after high school. Most of them have advanced degrees beyond bachelor’s degrees. Wenger has always been a proponent for education and he is self-educated in countless areas. Anyone who worked with him in the oilfields around sophisticated equipment or in a bank board meeting quickly realized what his employees know, Wenger spent many nights studying into the wee hours of the morning to comprehend the details of difficult subjects.
He founded the Mabel N. Wenger Scholarship in honor of his mother, which continues to be awarded each year to Dalton students, and he became a member of the Wayne County Community Foundation. He served on Dalton Village Council and he was president of the Dalton Chamber of Commerce. He also was on the board of First National Bank, which is now Farmers Bank. He has served on many boards and has been involved with many trade organizations. He was elected chairman of the Flexible Pavements of Ohio.
As Jeff Wenger puts it, his father likes to summarize life as three stages, although the stages do tend to overlap.
“Dad’s philosophy is learning, earning and returning,” Jeff Wenger said. “In our 20s and 30s we are ‘learning’ things. You spend your 30s and your 40s and your 50s ‘earning.’ Later, when you’re rounding third base – or in the twilight of our careers – we spend the time ‘returning.’ He’s done that. You couldn’t ask for a better coach.”
Starting from scratch
“I’m just a ditch digger,” Howard Wenger said with a smile in a recent interview at his companies’ headquarters on N Cochran Street in Dalton.