Robert Degnan is a husband, a doctor and a man loved by many.
Montpelier residents are offering this assessment of an 88-year-old local resident arrested last week and charged with first-degree murder following the shooting death of his 79-year-old wife in what he told police was a suicide pact gone wrong.
Friends and former co-workers of Degnan say that first and foremost he loved, worshiped and adored his wife, Marjorie. They were married for more than 50 years, and did everything and went everywhere together. They traveled extensively, but they could also be seen often walking hand-in-hand down the sidewalks in town — she with her mind deteriorating and he with his body and eyes failing him.
“It’s like she was his eyes and he was her mind,” said Bear Lake Memorial Hospital CEO Rod Jacobsen in recalling the couple.
Degnan’s poor eyesight may be the reason he is still alive while his wife’s life has ended. After his arrest on Sept. 6, he told police he and Marjorie had been planning a joint suicide for several months, but when he fatally shot her, he accidentally dropped his gun and was unable to find it due to his inability to see well, thus preventing him from taking his own life.
Robert and Marjorie Degnan moved with three of their eight children to Montpelier from Salem, Missouri, in 1987 because Bear Lake Memorial Hospital lost its OB/GYN, Kenneth Weaver. Friends say Degnan, who once lived and practiced in Rock Springs, Wyoming, was looking to get back out West because he really did not enjoy Missouri. He and Marjorie enjoyed the outdoor experience, fishing and backpacking, so living in the Bear Lake Valley was going to be a delight for them. They also enjoyed gardening, and Marjorie was a proficient cook who enjoyed canning and collecting recipe books.
The hospital needed someone of his particular skills. The types of surgeries they could do at that time without an OB/GYN were very limited. The hospital had three family practitioners, who all agreed to bring Degnan on as an OB/GYN. The town was too small for an obstetrician to make a living, according to national statistics, but Degnan was looking to slow down a bit at age 50, and he was willing to work in the emergency room, which helped make it possible to make an OB/GYN’s salary with a very small practice.
Up to that point, he had delivered approximately 10,000 babies between his time in Rock Springs, Salem, two years as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force, a resident at Cornell in New York City, and his gynecology practice at Hacienda Heights near Los Angeles. But he wasn’t finished yet.
He delivered hundreds of babies in Bear Lake, and the moms loved him. According to registered nurse Cristy Transtrum, who worked at Bear Lake Memorial for 30 years, “His deliveries were one-on-one.” And as Rod Jacobsen says, “They loved his sense of humor. He made them feel comfortable. He was also one of the few physicians who used forceps for deliveries, and he was a magician with them. Often times other physicians would call him in to use forceps in order to avoid ‘sick babies.’ All the nurses admired how he could deliver a baby with forceps.”
As far as obstetrics itself, “He was the most educated and well-rounded physician,” according to Micky Sparks, a registered nurse who also worked at Bear Lake Memorial for almost 25 years. He knew everything from obstetrics, to trauma, to cardiology. However, obstetrics was his specialty, and he was always willing to train the nurses in obstetrics procedures. He supported the nursing staff 100 percent.
He was down-to-earth and one could talk to him about anything, former co-workers say. He was educated, and if he didn’t know something, he would find out about it. In fact, he wanted to learn cardiology, and so he did. He got trained in cardiology so he was better prepared in the field when needed. And Sparks says he would have people come in the emergency room from various parts of the country in the summer to train them in different areas of expertise.
He was always willing to help someone. Sparks says, “If someone had an addiction problem or depression, he knew how to talk to them and help them. People appreciated that about him. He didn’t judge.”
He also had a humorous side. Tantrum says when he started in the emergency room, he would tell people, “I am Dr. Degnan, I am an obstetrician, what do you say now?” Sometimes the patient would laugh and sometimes they would wonder what they got themselves into. “And boy could he move, like a bolt of lightning, he was so fast! When he was done talking, he was up and out of there and we could hardly keep up with him.”
He also surprised everyone by how much he knew about the world, about people, about politics, and he could converse intelligently about all of them. He knew about vineyards and different kinds of wine. He also made his own compost and raised his own garden. Together, he and Marjorie were expert gardeners. Sparks says she would pick huckleberries and trade him for raspberries and squash or anything he had growing that he would offer. He would invite people to his backyard and give them things he had grown.
She says, “I just can’t say enough positive about him, my history with him, and how much he meant to me. I know when his eyesight started failing him and he had to begin quitting surgery it was devastating to him. Midge (Marjorie) was his number one person. He idolized her and always talked about her and his family. I think they have suffered these past years and he couldn’t stand to see that any more. I love the man dearly. I truly appreciate everything he taught me and all the years I worked with him.”
Degnan is being held in Caribou County Jail in Soda Springs awaiting court proceedings.
The Herald Journal contributed to this story.