HOULTON, Maine — Edwin “Hunk” Degenhardt, one of Houlton’s most well-known and beloved business leaders, was never one to shy away from a challenge.
Whether it was fighting in the Navy during World War II, or managing Firestone Plantations in Liberia, Africa, Degenhardt took on every challenge with a fierce determination, while always welcoming others’ opinions.
But most local people will remember Degenhardt as the man who brought McDonald’s restaurant to Houlton. He also brought the restaurant to Millinocket, Lincoln and Calais.
Degenhardt, 94, died Aug. 10 at his home in Houlton, surrounded by his family. He was born June 28, 1927, in Worcester, Massachusetts, to his parents Frederick and Ruby Degenhardt.
Degenhardt enlisted in the Navy following high school, then attended New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University after World War II. When his G.I. Bill benefits ran out, he worked as a manager’s assistant until he accepted a position as superintendent of a rubber plantation with Firestone Plantations Co. in Liberia, Africa.
He was introduced to Dawn White on a blind date in 1962 and the two were married in 1963. They began their family in 1967 when they adopted their first child. The Degenhardts went on to adopt nine children in total, and became advocates for the adoption process.
The couple were heavily involved in the Cleveland Council on Adoptable Children, Maine Council on Adoptable Children, Maine Adoption Placement Services and Aid for Kids.
In 1974, they relocated from Cleveland, Ohio, to Houlton, and opened their first McDonald’s franchise in Millinocket. Following success there, he opened franchises in Houlton, Lincoln and Calais.
“Dad always thought big and always out of the box,” Degenhardt’s daughter Heidi Abottoni said. “He never let roadblocks deter him. I don’t think roadblocks even existed for him. It’s unusual for someone to do just a fraction of what he did in his life but to do all of it is quite remarkable.”
Abbotoni said just a few examples of this feat were how he spent two years working in Liberia to save money in order to finish college; taking a chance to become a McDonald’s franchisee; building a huge indoor pool of his own design at their home in Houlton; and purchasing a ski mountain because he wanted to share his love of the outdoors and skiing with others. He continued to snow and water ski into his late 70s.
McDonald’s was not just a job for Degenhardt, it was a passion. He was awarded both the Maine Restaurateur of the Year Award, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Maine Restaurant Association.
He was involved with the local Chambers of Commerce and cherished partaking in parades and festivities. On top of supporting his wife’s missions, Degenhardt was an active member of Rotary International, the Elks Club, the Shriners, the Masons and the American Legion.
“It was a privilege to know Ed and claim him as a friend,” said Lori Weston, the executive director of Health Services Foundation in Houlton. “He once shared with me that not one thing in our lives happens by chance. Everything has a purpose and teaches us to be better people, even when we don’t see it at first.”
Weston added that Degenhardt often made people feel that their input mattered.
“He was a genuine listener,” she said. “He was never looking past you, but at you. A rare gentleman, a wonderful family man and man of great faith.”
After his wife was given a terminal cancer diagnosis in 1988, Degenhardt bought her roses every year on the anniversary day of that diagnosis, buying one additional rose each year. “He was so thankful for her until the end and considered her an angel,” Abbotoni said.