Family members are remembering Thomas Wagenbrenner as a businessman with foresight who recognized life was about more than making money.

Wagenbrenner, 80, died Feb. 24 at the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute at Ohio State University.

Along with his brothers, Mike and Tad, Wagenbrenner formed an investment company called Wagbros and purchased the Bank Block shopping center on Grandview Avenue in the late 1970s.

"They saw something in it that other developers didn't see," said Tom Wagenbrenner's son, Mark. "The Bank Block building was struggling and a lot of people thought it should be torn down.

"I think they realized what could happen on Grandview Avenue with its location near Ohio State University and being in an urban area with great schools," he said.

"The one thing they were committed to was making sure the stores and businesses located in the Bank Block were local," said Tom's son, Eric. "They didn't want bring in national chains."

Tom Wagenbrenner worked in advertising and banking before entering the field of real estate at age 40. After working at Ohio Equities, Tom and his brother, Mike, became partners in the Wagenbrenner Co., a real-estate company.

They formed Wagbros with their brother, Tad, who mostly stayed involved in the financial end of things, Mike Wagenbrenner said. Mike and Tom concentrated on developing the Bank Block property.

"It was really a stroke of luck that we ended up buying it," Mike Wagenbrenner said.

"I remember taking my wife out to the Bank Block in 1976 and there wasn't a soul around," he said. "There were only a couple stores left in the building. There wasn't a car parked anywhere near it.

"Grandview wanted to tear it down. They thought it was an eyesore."

But he and his brother thought the building was worth saving.

"All the developers we talked to said we should tear it down -- but we weren't people who wanted to tear things down. We were more fixer-uppers," Mike said. "We thought there was still some value left in the building."

They wanted to buy the property, but didn't have the finances to complete the renovation of the entire original Bank Block, he said.

"We had to sell the piece of the property that is now the Avenue and the condominium development on the corner of Third and Grandview," Mike said. "With the money we made from that sale, we could save the rest of the property."

Good from bad

The Wagenbrenners purchased other properties along Grandview Avenue, including the Kingswood Building between Third and Fifth avenues.

A 2009 fire damaged that two-story building beyond repair and displaced nearly all of the 27 business tenants.

The Wagenbrenner Co. built a new four-story development on the site, which included retail and restaurant uses on the first floor and apartments on the upper three floors.

"At that time, it was just a tremendous loss," Mike said. "Mark and Eric were the ones who advised us to build up higher and add apartments as part of the new building. The new project turned out to be a great addition to Grandview Avenue. Something good came out of something bad."

Watching the Grandview Avenue district grow and prosper brought a great deal of satisfaction to him and his brother, Mike said. A crowning moment was when the Bank Block was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. A state historical marker was installed in 2000 noting its status as one of the first regional shopping centers in the country.

"I'd like to be able to brag and say how smart we were and that we envisioned all of this happening," Mike said, "but we had a lot of help along the way. One of the most important things that happened was when Hubert Seifert became our first anchor tenant with the Gourmet Market (which later became Spagio).

"Once he came on board, things started to happen, slowly but surely," Mike said.

Thomas Wagenbrenner went by Tom, but he was also known as Dad, Dad II, Pops, Sarge, Daddy Wags and Poppie Tom. His college friends from Xavier University had another, more colorful nickname for Wagenbrenner that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

"He had a lot of nicknames because he was quite a character," Mark said. "He kept it simple. Family and friends were so important to him. He had a high EQ (emotional intelligence). He didn't have an enemy in the world."

"His philosophy was to treat everyone like he wanted to be treated, in life and in business," Eric said. "If we learned anything from him, as his children and working in business with him, it was to do things in the right way."

After working with their father and uncle, Mark and Eric Wagenbrenner formed their own company, Wagenbrenner Development, in the early 2000s.

'He had a lot of fun'

Making money and being successful were important to their father, Eric said, but "it wasn't everything to him. People were important. He had a lot of fun in life."

Among other stories, their father loved to talk about what happened in college when he attended a Xavier football game.

"He's probably the only person ever to make a tackle on a Division I football field who wasn't on the team," Mark said. "His friends dared him to run out on the field and tackle an opposing player -- so he did."

"He was never one who was afraid to take a chance, which he demonstrated when he and his brothers bought the Bank Block, and I guess he showed it in a different way on that day at the football game," Eric said.

Mike Wagenbrenner said he and his brother Tom "complemented each other really well.

"Like any brothers, we'd argue a lot, but we truly believed in one another," he said. "Whenever we made a decision, we made it together.

"As they say, blood is a lot thicker than water," Mike said. "I couldn't have done it by myself and Tom couldn't have done it by himself. We needed each other."

"Tom was a great brother and a great friend," he said. "I love him. I'll miss him."

Tom Wagenbrenner is survived by his wife, Judy; son, Scott (Beth); daughter, Karen; son, Blair Thomson (Donna); daughter, Amy Sappington (Ray); son, Mark (Leah); son, Eric (Amy); and son, Craig (Kelly), as well as 21 grandchildren.

He also is survived by siblings, Tad (Joanne); Ann (Dave) Hancock; and Mike (Polly); and brother-in-law, Charles Hanson. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Kay, and sister, Mary Lee Hanson.

Calling hours will be from 3 to 7 p.m. April 13 at Schoedinger Northwest Chapel, 1740 Zollinger Road, Columbus. A service will be held in the Schoedinger chapel at 4 p.m. April 14. A celebration of Wagenbrenner's life will follow immediately at Juniper Rooftop in the Smith Bros. Building, 580 N. Fourth St., Columbus.

Donations in Wagenbrenner's memory may be made to the Acute Myeloid Leukemia Research fund at the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, P.O. Box 183112, Columbus 43218.

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