Charles B. Degges was a well-spoken, dapper man with a pencil-thin mustache and a resume' as impeccable as his demeanor.
He had studied at the Corcoran School of Art and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, worked as a reporter for The Washington Evening Star, United Press and The Oakland Tribune. He was a member of the D.C. school board and the first director of the Alexandria Tourist Council.
"Charlie was a superior-talking kind of guy," recalls his sister-in-law, Albyne Leckert. "He was very flattering, very opinionated. Smooth."
In 1977, at the age of 74, Charles Degges died in the care of the Fairfax Department of Social Services. He was blind, alcoholic and alone.
"Charlie had alienated everyone by the end," says a neighbor who lived near Degges in Belle Haven, south of Alexandria. "He resented going blind. He talked about how life had been against him."
It didn't seem so when, after seven years of covering the District school board for The Star, Degges was appointed to the board as its secretary in 1934. During his tenure, Degges caused a minor scandal when, in 1936, he breached board policy and gave the home addresses of city school teachers to Rep. Thomas L. Blanton. The Texas Democrat mailed the teachers a speech in which he claimed "incontrovertible proof" of a scheme to "communize the public schools." Degges was denounced by the board and resigned soon afterward.
He returned to newspapers, covering Washington for UP and then for The Oakland Tribune. In 1948, while covering Harry S Truman's whistle-stop campaign for the Trib, he proposed to Marion Olivet in the dining car. One week later they were married.
Degges became head of the first Alexandria Tourist Council in 1962, but six years later, after unsuccessful surgery for cataracts, he was asked to resign. "He developed an absenteeism problem because of his health, and members of the board saw signs of a drinking problem," says council spokeswoman Diane Bechtol.
For the next nine years, Degges and his wife lived as recluses, supported mostly by Marion's sister, Leckert. By the late 1970s, a neighbor recalls, Degges was asking him to pick up liquor about once a week. "The in-laws didn't like that we got them liquor," he says. "But we finally came to the conclusion that, what the hell, they didn't have anything else."
By then, the spacious Degges house was dirty and unkempt, the heat was set at 90 degrees and the television in the living room played constantly. Marion Degges, dying of cancer, would lie on a daybed, a bottle of Cabin Still bourbon and a bucket of ice by her side. Charlie would recline on a couch across the room. He, too, had a bottle and a bucket. When Marion was near death in 1976, she called the ambulance herself, Leckert says.
"Charlie, I won't be back," Marion told her husband. Charlie was too drunk to respond.