To most individuals, earthquakes are frightening events, but to Degenkolb, they were his laboratory. He studied them, visited them, and designed buildings "as if an earthquake would occur in the next five years. When one thinks that way," it sure stiffens up your back," he told one interviewer.
After the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, California legislators started looking for resistive designs and passed statewide legislation for the construction of public schools. It was in this environment that Degenkolb arrived on the scene from Peoria, Illinois graduating in civil engineering from UC Berkeley in 1936. He helped design buildings for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40 and joined the firm of John Gould, the chief structural engineer for the exposition company. After 10 years he became a partner in the firm and its name changed to Gould and Degenkolb. When John Gould died in 1961, the firm became H. J. Degenkolb Associates, Engineers, which still exists today with nearly 150 employees who share in the success as well as the ownership of the company.
Unique among his peers, Degenkolb was the first to understand the need for an interdisciplinary approach that would encompass geophysics as well as the engineering sciences. As a result, he became a member of the Seismological Society of America in 1947, long before others in his field saw the value of studying this discipline.
In 1952 he started visiting the site of earthquakes around the world to gain a personal understanding of building design failures and human loss.
Degenkolb was often considered a "consultant's consultant." He served as an advisor to local, regional and national governments, including serving on the President's Task Force on Earthquake Hazards Reduction in 1970, the California Seismic Safety Commission from '69 to '74, and numerous professional organizations on earthquake and structural engineering. He, helped organize the First World Conference on Earthquake Engineering for the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.
He wrote many papers and articles and received several professional awards and honors, including the American Society of Civil Engineers Ernest E. Howard Award in 1967 for preeminence in earthquake engineering.
Henry Degenkolb was married to Anna Alma Nygren and they had five children. He died in December 1989.