William Francis Deegan, architect, organizer of the American Legion, major in the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and Democratic political leader in New York City, dies in Manhattan, New York County, New York, on April 3, 1932.
Deegan is born in the Bronx, Bronx County, New York, on December 28, 1882, to Irish immigrants. He studies architecture at Cooper Union. He marries Violet Secor (1889-1969) and has one son, William Secor Deegan (1909-85). At the age of 35 he serves in World War I as a staff officer in the 105th Field Artillery, rising to the rank of major.
Deegan later joins the United States Army Corps of Engineers as a major, where he supervises the construction of military bases in the New York area under the command of General George Washington Goethals. After the war he helps organize the American Legion in 1919, advancing to State Commander in 1921. In 1922 he is considered a strong candidate to become national commander of the Legion at their convention in New Orleans, but is defeated due to his strong advocacy for admitting Black veterans into the organization. Advocacy for the rights of Black people is a strong theme throughout Deegan’s career, including during his position as Tenement House Commissioner.
Deegan works as an architect at a number of distinguished firms, including McKim, Mead & White, Post, Magnicke and Franke, and Starrett and van Vleck. Later in life he holds a number of political positions, most of them in the Bronx. He is President of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce until the chamber grows critical of Mayor Jimmy Walker, at which point he resigns. In 1928, Mayor Walker appoints him Tenement House Commissioner of New York City, a post he holds for the rest of his life, and in 1930, chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Receptions to Distinguished Guests, or “official greeter,” a job in which he is preceded by his friend Rodman Wanamaker and eventually succeeded by Grover Whalen.
Deegan dies of complications following an appendectomy on April 3, 1932. He is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, Westchester County, New York. After his death, his widow, Violet, marries Albert W. Crouch (1882-1954).
At the time of his death, a new road is being built from the Triborough Bridge (now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) to the Grand Concourse. This is renamed and expanded in 1956 into the Major Deegan Expressway section of Interstate 87 in the Bronx, which retains his name.