For 37 years, he was Mister Softee. Or sometimes, “Uncle Walter.”
Steering his big white and blue ice cream truck around the streets of North Massapequa and Plainedge, Walter Degen became a community fixture — seven days a week, at least seven months a year, from 1958 to 1995. Everyone seemed to know him.
“He was on the job so long,” his wife Nancylee Degen said recently, that he would see kids who were once customers “now grown up with kids of their own” standing in line to buy ice cream.
“He loved kids. He loved the social interaction,” she said of her husband, who died Feb. 1 of complications from a stroke at age 90 at a hospital in Port Charlotte, Florida, where the two had moved after he retired.
So popular was Degen, he was the subject of a two-page feature spread in Newsday in 1985 (when he was then a mere 27 years on the job) with the headline “Summer with the Ice Cream Man.”
“Everybody likes him. It’s like your uncle in the ice cream business,” a North Massapequa resident, who had patronized Degen as a kid and now as a parent, told the newspaper.
But it wasn’t planned that way.
Degen was born in Brooklyn in 1927 and drafted into the Army at the end of World War II, serving stateside. After discharge, he worked a number of places, including New York Central Railroad and Republic Aviation. He drove a delivery truck. Then, he got into ice cream in 1958, purchasing a truck for $11,500.
He told Newsday in 1985: “My original idea was to go to Florida and buy a motel. But it didn’t work out . . . I guess we all have plans.”
Eventually, it grew into a business with six trucks, Nancylee said (Degen drove one, leased the others). For seven months a year, he’d leave home before noon — they lived first in Bohemia, then West Islip — to prep the truck and return near midnight after cleaning it. In winter, he worked for a messenger service and performed truck maintenance.
In his spare time, he was an avid horse racing fan, his wife said. He also liked to build model airplanes and boats.
“Through the years, Walter gave many young people opportunities. Teens were able to get their first jobs, cleaning trucks and machines, or allowing college students to drive part-time shifts,” said Melody Digregorio, who was one of those college drivers. She also was Walter’s sister-in-law.
“Walter even put blocks on the pedals for me because I was so short,” the upstate Stamford resident said, laughing. He was gentle but strict and orderly about the process: Always clean the machines thoroughly. Don’t give the kid the ice cream before you get the money — he might run away without paying.
Degen never had much trouble, Digregorio said, but once, a young boy told him he had a rock and would throw it at the truck’s window if he didn’t get a free ice cream. But he ended up paying because, she said, Degen “convinced him it wasn’t in his best interest to throw the rock.”
If a child was short a nickel or a dime, Degen would say, “Catch me next time,” Digregorio said, or offer free ice cream in exchange for some cleanup help. When he turned up the street, children would often yell, “Uncle Walter’s here,” she said.
“He was a kind soul,” Digregorio said.
Degen also is survived by sons James Degen, of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and Donald Ayala, of Bay Shore; brother, Michael Degen, of Lehigh Acres, Florida; and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He was predeceased by two sons, Thomas and Richard Degen; a daughter, Melody Greenfield; a brother, Robert Degen; and two sisters, Eleanor Ross and Dorothy Wolffe.
There were no services for Degen, who was cremated.