By Bob Tagert
An American Highlander
One of the fun things about owning this publication is all of the cool people that I have met and interviewed over the years. This month is no exception. When I attended the Christmas Parade in Little Washington, Virginia the beginning of December, I was introduced to Deak at Tula’s Restaurant. After conversing for the better part of the morning, I knew that there was a good story behind that beard and long hair. I was right.
Although he bought some land along the Thornton River in Rappahannock County in 1984, he maintains his residence and business in Alexandria. I had the chance to meet him for breakfast at the Royal Restaurant for this interview. I learned a lot about this “larger than life” guy, but one of the things that impressed me the most was when he bowed his head and prayed to his God before breaking bread. I made a comment and he told me he is very proud of his Christian faith and that God is his life! How could it get any better than this?
Deak and I have traveled a parallel course our whole lives. At 70 years old, he is 5 months older; he grew up in southeast Washington, D.C. and I grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland. This is his story.
Deak grew up in a very close-knit family consisting of two brothers and two sisters. “The poker player that dad was, he always said he had a full house,” he tells me. I guess that he meant that in more ways than one. “We were a good Catholic family,” he says. “The three most important men in our lives were my father, the Parrish Priest and the cop who walked our beat.” These were the men he grew up admiring. He pretty much had all the bases covered!
In 1956 the family decided to leave the city and move to the country, and in those days the country was not far away. “We moved to Suitland, Maryland,” he says. “ It was great, we were right along Suitland Parkway and even had a creek close by.” This is when the love of the outdoors began to grab Deak. Ironically, it was about this same time that my family moved to Oxon Hill.
When it came time for high school, there was not enough money available to send Deak to a private school, until one day his dad came home and said, “You are going to St. John’s!” St. John’s College High School, located in Washington, D.C., was established in 1851 and is the second oldest Catholic Christian Brother’s school in the United States. He was granted a full football and basketball scholarship so that he might attend from 1960 to 1964. It was not until many years later that Deak found out that his Parrish Priest and an anonymous donor made it possible for him to attend by picking up that scholarship. After high school he attended the University of Maryland. In 1969 he graduated from the university with a degree in business.
“I never got a feel for “campus life” while at Maryland,” he tells me. While there he was always trying to work two jobs, mostly in construction. “I had been working since I was 12 years old,” he says. “While attending Maryland, at $2.25 to $2.75 an hour, those were the best paying jobs.” At 6’3” he was built for that line of work. Deak should have graduated from Maryland in 1968 but he spent one year in the Army in his last year of school. This led to one of his major regrets… while he served in the Army all of his friends went to the Woodstock Music Festival. “I sure wish I could have been able to make that concert,” he says.
It was around this time that Deak bought his first motorcycle and I bought mine. His however, you couldn’t really call a motorcycle…it was a Honda 50. It was a two-wheeler and 4.5 horsepower that couldn’t get out of its own way in a hurry. Put a two hundred and twenty pound man on it and you need time to get to speed. “I paid $229 for that bike new,” he tells me. “I would hit the beltway and nearly twist that handle throttle off to get going and then I would pull in behind a truck to gain the draft from the truck…my brother taught me that trick.” Keep in mind; these were the early days of the beltway. There were only two lanes in each direction and very little traffic. You could drive around the beltway and see a handful of cars, and only a few at night.
After college he was recruited by Ford Motor Company to work in their labor relations department in Michigan. He only lasted a year due to an argument with his boss. “The argument centered around the shootings at Kent State in 1970,” he says, “I took the position that it was a government slaughter.” After leaving Ford, he was hired by a very progressive engineering firm where he set up their human resources department. That gig lasted 3 years and then it was time to get out of the suit and tie and travel, so he hopped in his van and spent the next 5 months traveling 40,000 miles around the country. The whole journey only cost him $3,200.
When he got back he went to work for a friend in the building business. “I was going to spend the next five weeks helping him build decks,” he tells me, however that turned into 43 plus years of Deak and Company. He was enjoying his work as well as the outdoors. In 1975 a friend mentioned that they should enter a white water canoe race on the Patapsco River. His friend came in first but Deak came in last …he was hooked. Thus began 12 years of white water canoe racing. His learning curve really went up once he joined the Canoe Cruisers Association.
“I paddled on 67 rivers from here to Oregon,” he tells me. He won a lot of local championships but never won the National Open Water Canoe Championship, however placing in the top 5. “Man, we would go flat water paddling in the morning, go to work and then hit Great Falls in the late afternoon.” he remembers. “ One time the water was really high, sort of flood stage, and we went out. I got caught in the current and ended up in the top of some trees. Couldn’t get the boat out, so tied it off in the trees and went back for it later. Firemen rescued me, and this was way before they had developed “swift water” techniques.”
One of Deak’s favorite venues for canoe racing was Petersburg, West Virginia where racing would be done on the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Once again our parallel course nearly converged for I have spent more than 12 years visiting the same river and have seen the racers paddle by my friends house. The course was long as it meandered through rural villages and mountain gorges. In 1985 a 500-year flood hit this area and entire communities were wiped out. Deak and his canoe buddies returned to help with the recovery. “I put my carpentry skill to use in helping rebuild some of the homes,” he tells me. “The devastation was immense,” he says, “after the waters receded you would find cows that were stuck up under bridges.”
One man who was partially blind kept asking Deak who he was, and the reply was, “just a friend to help out.” Finally Deak told the guy his name and a few years later he got a book in the mail that was written about the flood of 1985. To this day, that book is one of Deak’s most prized possessions.
Some of his other favorite venues to race were the Rappahannock River as it flows through Fredericksburg and the Covington and Thornton Rivers near Little Washington and Sperryville. In 1983 he saw an ad for some land for sale along these familiar rivers, and in 1984 he purchased the land. He met the owner who was living with his wife and living off of social security. “We offered him $350 a month to buy the land and they were glad to get it to help supplement their monthly income. The owner was a movie actor from years ago named Edward J. Pawley. “This guy was in every movie you and I saw as kids,” he tells me. “He was never a leading man, but when talkies came out, he was one of the few who had a magnificent voice.” Pawley and Deak remained close friends until Pawley’s death in 1987. “He was a true patriot and conservative,” he remembers.
Today Deak and Chris, his wife of 34 years, have a classic log home on that property that Deak built himself. They have two daughters and 6 grandbabies under the age of 4. His way of dealing with the 6 is easy…spoil them!
At age 70 he still builds and remodels homes but has pared back from the days when he employed as many as 49 people to just himself. Deak and Company is a one-man show.
He has been across country many times, most recently on his 1340 cc Harley Electra Glide. On one of his earlier trips out west he rode with a group of bikers called the Booze Fighters. “I am happy to say that I have been a patch holder for 16 plus years in our club that just turned 70 years old,” he says. “This was one of the first motorcycle groups ever and was founded by a guy know as Wino Willy,” he says. “Life magazine did a big story on the group and pretty much got it all wrong. The magazine depicted us as one of the 1% bikers when in fact, we were one of the 99% of good guys.” That episode was the basis for the movie Wild Ones, and Lee Marvin played the role of Wino Willy.
Deak is also a historian and can be an activist. With all of the hullabaloo about the Civil War statue at Washington Street and Prince Street, Deak had had enough and placed two signs on the base of the statue which read Alexandria City Council COWARDS. “I thought the signs might last 15 minutes but they were up for an hour before someone tore them down,” he says. “The Alexandria Gazette did a front page photo of the signs,” he continues. This is a man who believes in history and its’ rightful place in our lives. I agree.
I have had a blast writing this article and taking myself down memory lane. The only way to sum up the man is a song from PaintYour Wagon…I’m on my way!
Gotta dream boy, Gotta song, Paint your wagon, and come along:
Where am I goin’? I don’t know, Where am I headin’? I ain’t certain, All I know is I am on my way.
When will I be there? I don’t know, When will I get there? I ain’t certain, all that I know is I am on my way,
Gotta dream boy, Gotta song,
Paint your wagon
And come along!