March 3, 1933 – Dec. 13, 2013
If you’ve filled out a bank deposit slip, read a college commencement program or received a wedding invitation during the last 60 years in Western New York, chances are pretty good you got a taste of Jim E. Degen’s handiwork.
Mr. Degen, founder and retired owner of Grover Cleveland Press, died Friday in Veterans Affairs Medical Center, following a 10-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 80.
He was born in Buffalo and started his business in 1947, when he was 14, in the basement of his family’s Winspear Avenue home while a student at Burgard Vocational High School. The business wasn’t named so much for the president, as the city course where he played lots of golf as a boy.
Mr. Degen made sales calls by bike and, in the winter by sled, and counted Curtiss-Wright among his earliest customers. He bought his first Heidelberg Windmill press in 1951, borrowing the money from his parents, and had much of it paid off by the time he was drafted into the Korean War. He served in the 8th Army, 62nd Engineer Topographic Engineer Map Unit from 1953 to 1955, helping map the Korean peninsula as part of a press crew of 10.
Upon his return home, Mr. Degen moved his printing business from the family basement to a shop on Niagara Street, where he stayed for three years before moving into a larger spot on Bailey Avenue, north of the University at Buffalo, one of his many customers over the decades. Others included Erie County Savings Bank, Mentholatum, Sattler’s, Arner Company Pharmaceuticals and Columbus McKinnon.
While working at the Bailey Avenue site, the company won a coveted National Printing Industries of America Benny Award in 1984 for producing “The Throbbing Drums are Silent.”
Two of his sons, Michael and Thomas, joined their father in the printing business about the same time. The company has won more than 100 state, national and international awards, including two other Bennys, the printing world’s equivalent of an Oscar.
Mr. Degen retired in 1998, but continued to play a major role in the company he started. The same year, he and his sons designed and led construction of the family’s current facility on Sweet Home Road in Amherst. A year later, Mr. Degen won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Printing and Imaging Association of New York State.
“Dad loved his work and his time at the shop,” said his oldest son, Jim A., an engineer in the automotive supplier industry. “His office is filled with awards and many toys – including a miniature train that chugs around a track eight feet off the ground. He always was proud to show off to his customers and grandchildren his model airplanes, trains and cars.”
“Dad had season tickets to the Bills and Sabres,” Mike Degen added. “He enjoyed going to the games and taking his Grover Cleveland Press confetti to spread good cheer – although not all fans appreciated this gesture.”
Mr. Degen coached all three of his sons in the Amherst Youth Hockey program, along with hundreds of other boys from 1968 to 1980. He was later placed in the program’s Hall of Fame. He avoided the political workings of the youth hockey organization, but in going through his belongings in recent months, his family discovered he’d kept all his related letters, “stating his thoughts on making sure the association kept its focus on the game for the boys who participated,” Tom Degen said.
Mr. Degen also liked to work in his garden, manicure his lawn into a golf-course-worthy putting green and shine his prized Cadillac, family members said.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Elizabeth “Honey” Feuz; three sons, Jim, Michael and Thomas; a daughter, Julie McAuliffe; a brother, William; and 13 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday in Williamsville United Methodist Church, 5681 Main St., Williamsville.