November 23, 2017

New dean has history in gay rights movement

Learn more about the Gay Games (here)

Tom Severino first met Anton Wallner in Kansas City at a Pride parade. The two were married in  San Francisco 20 years later, following the legalization of gay marriage.

“I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,” Wallner said.

Wallner, now Dean of Arts and Sciences at Webster, worked at Missouri Western State College when he met Severino. He and Severino moved to Florida when Wallner accepted a position with Barry University in 2000 as professor of chemistry and department chair of Physical Science.

Severino said he took a position in Institutional Advancement, which had also opened up at Barry University.

“We moved down to Florida and they had domestic partnerships,” Severino said. “We decided we wanted to get married and Tony wanted to get married in San Francisco.”

Wallner said he wanted to get married in San Francisco, California, because it was not yet legal in the state of Florida. Florida did not recognize gay marriage after it was made legal at the federal level in 2013.

Along with the possibility of a legal marriage, Wallner was attracted to the city because of its historical significance. He said he wanted to get married in the San Francisco courthouse, a location made important to the LGBT civil rights movement after the assassination of LGBT advocates Harvey Milk and George Moscone.

“It’s a very beautiful building too,” Wallner said. “So the beauty of the building, the significance in regards to the civil rights movement, and we just happened to love the city.”

Wallner’s involvement  in the LGBT civil rights movement goes beyond the history; he has played the role of advocate through various volunteering opportunities and participation in the community.

While working with an HIV free health clinic, Wallner said he had some of the most exciting and difficult experiences in his life.

“Thousands and thousands of people that I knew died,” Wallner said.

He referred to the thousands of HIV-afflicted patients he met and befriended while he worked at the clinic. When he began volunteering there in the ‘80s, no effective treatments for HIV/AIDS had yet been discovered.

“Many people did lots of things in response to a lack of response from health care agencies and the federal government because you had to,” Wallner said. “There weren’t people there to help.”

Wallner continued to volunteer with the clinic until the first HIV protease inhibitor had been approved for prescription in 1995. The protease inhibitor became an important approach in disrupting the HIV infection in those who were afflicted.

“To see people go from two weeks away from death to vibrant life, after seeing about 10 to 12 years of people just dying, was really inspiring,” Wallner said.

While Wallner spent much of his time assisting in the fight against HIV, he also participated as an athlete in the Gay Games.

Wallner’s interest in competitive sports originally landed him a scholarship in bowling for his undergraduate program.

“I traveled all over the country, got to see the United States, and competed in a variety of NCAA level competitions,” Wallner said. “My best series was 831 for three games.”

The competitive drive did not stop there, however. Wallner had been with Severino for a few years when eventually decided to take up figure skating.

“One day he came home and said ‘I think I’m going to take up figure skating’,” Severino said. “When he did figure skating, he just knocked my socks off.”

Wallner said he tries to challenge himself with something new every once in awhile. He said learning to figure skate was one of many examples of him deciding to do something new and then doing it.

Although he said he was not the best in the competition, Wallner said he could do most of the figure skating jumps.

“I was good for an old man, is what I kind of joke,” Wallner said.

With the new position of the dean of arts and sciences at Webster University, Wallner said he continues to prove his dedication to progression and advancement in the academic realm as well as the social arena. He credits the added responsibilities of the new position, as well as the new opportunities the additional science grants and completion of the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building (ISB) will offer.

Provost Julian Schuster said Wallner’s dedication to the academic community and his students has played a big part in his hiring. He has faith in Wallner’s ability to lead the advancement of the new science department.

“He has significant research experience and a strong record of attracting external grants, which are going to further propel the work by Webster faculty and students in these areas,” Schuster said. “I look forward to working with him as he leads the College of Arts and Sciences toward new successes.”

While at Barry University, Wallner partnered with the science faculty to establish an annual scientific Olympiad. Exceptional high school students from the surrounding area were invited to the university to participate in science competitions and win prizes for their efforts.

Wallner said he wanted to take the same fanfare and celebration found in sports and apply it to science.

“How do we get more students interested in science and how do we reward science and how do we highlight scientific accomplishments with students,” Wallner said. “In high schools and many other areas, sports are often much more highlighted.”

Aside from all of his leadership and volunteering experiences, Wallner said he wants to do his best to act as a role model and mentor for his students, especially as a faculty member who is gay.

“There are organizations that I’ve worked with over my lifetime, just because I think that’s a good valuable thing to do in terms of making society a better place,” Wallner said. “And just providing a sort of mentorship and role model to students. The fact that you are ‘out’ on campus is notable because there weren’t ‘out’ people when I was in school.”

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