From the time he was a young boy growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey, George Degnon had an entrepreneurial spirit.
In grammar school, he would wait outside the market with the wagon his grandfather gifted him and put it to work carrying home groceries for customers for a nickel per trip. Throughout high school, he held various odd jobs including stocking groceries and delivering newspapers. And in college, George even went as far as renting a ski chalet and selling tickets to bus students from campus to Vermont. The trip alone paid for an entire semester of his schooling.
Despite those successful experiences earlier in life, George couldn’t quite shake his doubts when he began to think about starting his own company as an adult. That is, until he sat down for a job interview with Bud Meredith, a successful and highly respected leader of a Washington, D.C.-based textile organization looking to bring George on board as his right-hand man. Bud was highly complementary of George and told him they would work well together, but then asked George an unexpected question: what will you do if you don’t get this job? When George floated the idea of starting his own company, the interview came to an abrupt end.
“‘George, my offer’s off the table,’” George recalls Bud telling him. “’I have one regret in life, and it’s that I never pursued my own company. I would not be doing you a service if I gave you this job and you didn’t explore that. If you do that for two or three years and it doesn’t work out, what happens? You’re looking for a job. That’s where you are today. But if it works out, there’s no glass ceiling on what you can do with your own business.’”
With Bud’s encouragement, soon after the interview George left the best job he’d ever had to found Degnon Associates, a family-founded, family-owned and family-run association management company that has served its clients in and around the nation’s capital since 1979.
Originally founded as a governmental relations firm on the foundation of George’s 25 years as a public health lobbyist on Capitol Hill, Degnon Associates transitioned to association management after George grew weary of the endless appropriations cycles and shifting political winds in Washington. The firm now helps associations cut down on overhead costs by taking on myriad responsibilities including marketing, administrative work such as bookkeeping and contract writing and even training members of the organizations’ boards of directors how to best strategically plan to set the association up for success.
“All of these organizations, they would elect a president every year,” George says. “One would yin and the next would yang. After five years, 10 years, they really hadn’t made any progress. I wanted these organizations to become more outcome-oriented, goal-oriented. I brought my philosophy to the management of those organizations.”
The values on which George built both his business and his life run all the way back to his deep roots in Jersey City. Born the oldest of four children in 1940, George quickly learned the value of hard work, the importance of a loving family and the necessity of a strong faith. George remembers a time when church and the bakery were the only places to go on Sundays — everywhere else was closed — and there was never a doubt where the Degnon clan would be.
George’s dad was a member of the plumbers’ union who worked on high-rise buildings in New York City, and his mother was a homemaker. More importantly to both, they were devoutly Catholic. The faith came naturally for George, so much so that he moved to Holy Trinity, Alabama for three years of high school in pursuit of priesthood. All these years later, George still holds his prayer book from seminary among his most-prized earthly possessions.
“My rich prayer life goes back to those roots,” George says. “Faith is just such a gift. The appeal of being a priest and helping people was something I identified with. It was me.”
Like most young men, George was drawn to the idea of dating, and his interest began to dissuade him from continuing down the path to priesthood. With the endorsement of the seminary’s spiritual director, George returned to New Jersey for his final year of high school. Sure enough, just a year later, he met Marge, his wife of 58 years.
“She’s been my coach, my guide, my support,” George says. “We have a wonderful relationship. She’s so witty, I don’t get half of it. Every day, she gives me a Marge-ism.”
Though a fine student, George admits that school was far from his top priority upon his return to New Jersey, trumped by basketball and after-school games of stickball and boxball. George later came to regret his lack of focus on his studies because of the opportunities he may have foregone, but he thought little of college at the time. Few in his family had attended, and his parents made clear to him that they were not able to assist financially.
That became moot, however, when Metropolitan Life Insurance began offering select seniors free tuition for night school classes at local Saint Peter’s College. George jumped at the opportunity to take college courses but was quickly disappointed when he learned that the night school only offered business classes. George had little interest in business or accounting, and he made the difficult decision to leave the program. But by that point, George was sufficiently intrigued by the opportunities college presented, and he liquidated his savings to attend the day school for a year. He then took time off from school and landed a job driving a truck and delivering free samples in the Washington, D.C. suburbs until he saved enough to begin classes again in New Jersey. Between the money saved during his time off, various odd jobs he held while in school and his money-making ventures such as arranging the ski trip and hosting beer parties, George managed to scrape enough together to complete his final three years and graduate.
“I kind of wanted to go to college, but I never thought I would,” George says. “In retrospect, maybe it was a challenge to do better for myself. I like challenges. I had a couple of cousins who went to college, and they had good jobs. I saw what they had and was just perceptive and intuitive.”
Every student was required to do two years of ROTC, but George elected to continue for all four years. After graduation, he was commissioned as an Army officer and assigned to the 11th Air Assault Division, a new unit that the Army used to test and develop guerilla warfare techniques in the run-up to the Vietnam War. George’s original ambition was to be an air ambulance helicopter pilot, but he failed the eye exam necessary to enter flight school.
“They said, ‘Well, you can’t fly them. What are you going to do now?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll jump out of them,’” George says. “So I became a paratrooper and an Army jumpmaster. I jumped everything the Army flew and many of the planes the Air Force flew. Some of it hadn’t been done before by the Army.”
With Marge expecting the couple’s first child and George finding Army life overly rigid for his liking, he elected to be discharged from the Army after two years of service and return home to New Jersey, where he landed a job teaching Latin and Greek at a local high school. Though he loved teaching and interacting with the students, the bureaucracy of the educational system also wore on George, leading him to pursue new opportunities through his alma mater’s placement office. George had little idea what he wanted to do next but eventually concluded that, given his Army history, something in the healthcare industry might suit him.
He landed a position at the Medical Society of New Jersey in which he was responsible for educating doctors around the state on the intricacies of Medicare and Medicaid. The plan was for George to occupy the role for about five years and learn the ropes before elevating to the organization’s executive director position upon his boss’ retirement. But yet again, the opportunity for change soon came knocking.
Close to a year into the role, an article George penned on extended care facilities caught the eye of the New Jersey liaison for the American Medical Association. He gave George a tip on an exciting opportunity with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), but there was a kicker: it would require a long-distance move.
“We had just put a down payment on a house in New Jersey,” George remembers. “It took my wife and I two months to make a decision. Every night, we put our head down with a different conclusion. We just kept second-guessing ourselves, and it was a tough period. All she ever wanted was to be close to her mother with the grandkids, and all I ever wanted was challenge and excitement. We decided to do it, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
The leap of faith to AAP led George to a dozen of the most professionally rewarding years of his life. Hired to a new department focused on improving children’s healthcare, George found his passion and dove headfirst into the work.
“When I came to Washington, I said, ‘What do you want me to do? What’s my charge?’” George says. “And they said, ‘George, we want you to make the world a better place for kids.’ That’s quite an honor. I created partnerships and brought people together. I found that to be a very effective way of doing things.”
George mastered the art of working across party lines to deliver results, which lead to him being honored as one of Washington’s top healthcare lobbyists five times. More importantly to George, though, his effectiveness meant he delivered on his original duty – making the world a better place for children.
George led the charge on numerous pieces of legislation that brought about needed reforms, including expanding insurance coverage to include neonatal care, broadening access to primary care for pregnant women and infants, banning lead paint and mandating safety caps on prescription bottles to prevent child overdoses. The latter prompted a congratulatory phone call on New Year’s Eve from one of President Richard Nixon’s top staffers, who called George at the president’s behest to inform him of the bill’s signing. Today, George is quick to note that the dramatic decline in child overdoses stemming from that law alone has saved more than 18,000 lives and counting.
“That’s a nice thing to feel you had something to do with,” George says. “I enjoyed every moment of it. It was just a terrific job. It was fun. It was like a laboratory. I had the resources and the personnel and the support of the membership to make things happen.”
Lauded by his colleagues for having “the golden touch,” George rose to Associate Executive Director at AAP, a second-in-command role that placed him in charge of nearly all daily operations. But as much as he enjoyed the job, he eventually felt his time at AAP was nearing a natural end and began to seek other opportunities. His fateful interview with Bud Meredith ensued, and a short time later, Degnon Associates was born.
It was anything but smooth sailing at the company’s inception, and George wondered on more than one occasion if he’d taken an ill-advised leap of faith.
“’My God, what did I do?’ George remembers asking himself. “I had four kids. I was married. I had the best job in the world. I wasn’t needing anything, and I took this risk. Was that really the right thing to do? I started second-guessing myself.”
Things got so bad, in fact, that George fell into a deep depression for about a year. He credits counseling and Marge’s support for helping him emerge from that dark period, and he’s made eliminating stigma around mental health a priority since.
“There were mornings I woke up, crawled in a fetal position and just cried,” George says. “I didn’t want to face the day. That was a horrible feeling. It’s part of life, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed by it. I learned from that.”
With the help of his family and lots of hard work, George built Degnon Associates into one of the most acclaimed firms of its kind in the Washington, D.C. area before his retirement in 2015. True to form for the family-centric business, George handed the reins to his daughter Laura, who now serves as the President & CEO after starting at the firm as a receptionist and mailroom attendant.
“The company’s been run so much better than it ever was with me,” George says with a smile. “She’s got so much creative juice and so many new ideas. She just loves the work, and it’s infectious. When she talks to a board, you can just see how much they love her. I’m so proud of her. It’s wonderful.”
Never one to consider slowing down, George’s penchant for adventure in retirement rivals that of his career. He spends much of his time in his woodshop crafting whatever suits his fancy, including American flags made with wood from their home’s old fencing, to a small piece of wood George fashioned into a two-sided game during the pandemic and aptly named the “2020 Covid Boredom Buster.” He relishes the opportunity to spend more time with Marge, their four children and 12 grandchildren, all of whom he will readily boast over. And he is sure to save time for others, frequently volunteering for the St. Vincent de Paul Society and pouring time into an organization he started with former classmates from seminary that has organized service trips to destinations ranging from Mississippi to Puerto Rico.
“Retirement is fun,” George says. “Don’t forget it’s important to have goals. Don’t forget you need to have a directed life. You need to be shooting for something. In retirement, you can pick and choose. I can play in my woodshop on the days I want. I can go out and visit and help folks on the days I want. I think retirement is golden. It’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful period of life.”
Focusing on achieving goals and outcomes he’s laid out for himself has been a practice of George’s since he read What Color Is Your Parachute? around the time he founded Degnon Associates. The book laid out a challenge to write down 10 goals, and George was thrilled to find his original copy decades later and see that he’d accomplished nearly every one.
In 2011, George added another goal to his list: beating cancer. Diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer, the doctors reported the cancer had spread and delivered a 1- to 2-year life expectancy. That was 11 years ago.
Most recently, the cancer led to spinal cord compression that paralyzed George from the waist down. Even so, George would rather talk about his thankfulness for the successful clinical trials that have extended his life than dwell on the negatives of his illness. He says his enduring positivity regardless of the circumstances is a trait he inherited from his mother.
“Lance Armstrong said, ‘The biggest weapon you have against your cancer is your attitude. Those with positive attitudes can beat it,’” George says. “I decided I wanted to beat it. It’s not over. I’m still fighting it, and I’m going to beat it. I’m bound and determined to keep fighting it.”
Of course, George emphasizes this fight — or any of his life’s triumphs — would not be possible without the love and support of his family, particularly Marge.
“I wouldn’t have had success if I didn’t have Marge,” George says. “She is the source of my success. It’s just an ideal circumstance to have a supportive spouse. I can’t emphasis that enough. It would be tough doing things that I do without the support of your spouse. She’s an amazing woman.”
While hospitalized recently as his doctors treated his spinal cord compression, George stashed away the TV remote and took time to steep in the quiet and reflect for hours on end. He describes the four days he spent unplugged from technology as four of his best in a long while, and he appreciates the fresh perspective they gave him.
He came away from the time alone with his thoughts focused on a simple commandment from the Bible, one he has always tried to both practice himself and encourage others to follow in their own lives: love God, and love your neighbor as much as yourself.
“Adopting the attitude of gratitude, the attitude of whatever I can do to help my neighbor is so important,” George says. “I’m enriched when I give. I’m enriched when I help. They’re all little building blocks of life.”