Hard-Riding Editor Shoots From The Hip


Talk to Joe Wager on the phone, and this Star Valley resident sounds precisely like what he is: a highly educated native of Chicago and the successful owner-publisher-editor of a newspaper-magazine.

But meet him in person, and all preconceived mental images shape-shift into something else entirely.

Maybe it's the bolo tie and black leather vest Wager wears. Maybe it's his slow, loping, Robert Mitchum-style gait, no doubt created in part by the 25 times he's been thrown from horses. Maybe it's the love of those horses and the American West that permeates his every word.

Or maybe it's that, when you put all of these things together, Joe Wager looks for all the world like the second or third lead in a John Wayne movie.

He is, in other words, a rare breed. He's a man with the looks and values of a cowboy and the smarts of a 21st century fox.

Wager (pronounced "wagger") lived in Chicago until he was 18.

"I graduated from high school and left town," he said as if it were an automatic decision, like taking the clothes out of the drier when the buzzer goes off.

He went to work for the U.S. Forest Service in Eureka, Calif., was drafted and sent to Korea in 1952, got out, returned to Chicago, then met and married Gerri, now his wife of 45 years, in 1954. After attending the University of Chicago and producing two sons, the Wagers relocated to Phoenix in 1970 to improve the health of his oldest boy, who suffered from serious bronchial problems. It worked; "He grew a foot-and-a-half and never coughed again. It was a very good move."

By then, Wager had decided he never again wanted to be somebody else's employee.

"I'd always been attracted to horses, so I started buying and selling them," he said. "I had a big advertising bill; my ads were like Tex Earnhardt's ... and since I was spending so much money in advertising, I thought, 'Gee, I ought to start my own newspaper.'"

That was 21 years ago. The result of Wager's brainstorm, Bridal & Bit magazine, started out in the Valley with a circulation of 5,000 to 7,000. Now it is distributed to more than 40,000 readers around the state.

In the early days, he wrote the entire publication by himself ... not that the readers would have ever noticed.

"I used two or three different bylines, which I'd use depending on the slant I wanted to put on a story," Wager said. "I was completely self-taught in all aspects of the publishing business. I'd never done anything close to it."

Despite Wager's passion for horses and his 1987 tenure as the president of the Arizona Horsemen's Association, things equestrian had precious little to do with why he created Bridal & Bit.

"I wouldn't do anything where I would knowingly lose money," he said with a laugh. "I thought there was a profit potential in it. And from the beginning, we never lost money on it. It just kept getting bigger and bigger ... And we have some of the same advertisers today that we had in the first issue."

In 1995, after searching the 11 Western United States and all of Northern Arizona, the Wagers chose Payson because, he said, "This is about as good as it gets."

Today, his youngest son, Rex, runs the paper, and Wager, 68, contributes the occasional think-piece.

"I'm also a real estate broker, but that's not something you brag about," he added with good-humored self-deprecation.

While he calls himself "mostly retired," Wager is not at all retired from horses or political issues involving horses, and just recently participated in a showdown last Wednesday between the Payson Horseman's Association and local town and county officials and after the last verbal bullet had been fired, the Payson Event Center was tentatively opened to area riders pending town council approval.

"Up until (that night), we had a serious problem with representatives of the town ... they didn't have much information, and the information they had was wrong," Wager said. "They didn't know, for example, that their insurance covered their lability as far as the Payson Event Center is concerned. Well, we got the policy for them and convinced them that they are covered.

"It's like their glasses are one-way mirrors; all they can see is themselves. But I think, because of this meeting, if they do what they said they were going to do, the problem is pretty much solved."

The last and most obvious question to ask Joe Wager who now owns "two good trail horses," but has owned as many as 10 at one time is, what is it about these animals that so dramatically changed your life?

"I don't have the slightest idea," he said. "They're not a pet. You can like them, but you don't love them like a dog because a dog loves you. Horses are indifferent to you. They may come when you call or hold up a carrot, like a Pavlovian response. But you can beat a dog five times a day and he'll still come running up to you with his tail wagging. Nobody understands that, but that's the way it is.

"But horses are very responsive, they're easy to get along with, and they create a lot of recreational fun. You ride them, you brush them, you take care of them. There's labor there, but it's a labor of love.

"And they're big. There are very, very few things that weigh a thousand pounds or more that I can dominate. I think that's a part of it."

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