George Dragas Jr., 85, passed away peacefully Thursday, March 21, 2019. He was a consummate family man, an instinctive and successful business and civic leader, and a caring philanthropist whose positive energy and competitive drive touched people from all walks of life.
Founder of The Dragas Companies, now in its 51st year, George combined an entrepreneur’s vision with hard work and the determination that personifies the American Dream. In the process, he built a diversified real estate enterprise that would serve the needs of Hampton Roads homebuyers and fuel his civic generosity. But his greatest passion was always directed towards engaging wholeheartedly with his expansive family, his multitude of friends and the Hampton Roads community.
George was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, to the late George Dragas and Helen Papadakis Dragas, immigrants from Naxos and Piraeus, Greece, who soon moved to Norfolk to raise their family.
At the age of four, George traveled to Greece with his mother and siblings for an extended visit to meet their grandparents, but their return to America was blocked until the end of World War II and the country’s ensuing civil wars. Trapped in Athens, they endured the hardships and witnessed the tragic scenes of war that left indelible impressions. And only after the family was able to secure return passage to Norfolk in 1945 did they learn of the untimely death of their father during their absence.
Without question, the hardships of starvation, war and the early loss of a parent might have hardened the hearts of some. But for George, they created a deep sense of empathy for others, which, in turn, became values underscored by understanding and compassion and an unquenchable desire to instill them in his family and infuse them into the businesses he created.
George graduated from Maury High School in 1952, after which he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in West Germany. Following military service, he attended the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary (now Old Dominion University) and graduated from Virginia Tech, where he earned his degree in business administration. His public university experiences also convinced him that an accessible education levels the playing field of opportunity and has the power to advance society and elevate families beyond a single generation.
George then became a loan officer for United Mortgagee and launched his own mortgage lending company, Dragas Mortgage, in 1968. Shortly thereafter, he began building homes and apartments, developing land and brokering real estate, and today, The Dragas Companies has built, sold, and financed quality homes in sustainable neighborhoods for over 8,000 Hampton Roads households.
But George was most proud of the talented and committed employees of the company, whom he led and mentored through the homebuilding industry’s inevitable economic cycles. Today, the business he began is one of the country’s most long-standing and successful development companies, which has twice been awarded the Lee Evans Award for Business Management Excellence and earned the industry’s highest honor by being named America’s Best Builder by Builder Magazine and the National Association of Homebuilders.
George’s business successes fueled his charitable initiatives and helped fulfill his desire to lift the fortunes of others, and he focused his civic energies on education, creating a favorable business climate and the arts.
George served on the board of trustees of Norfolk Academy and Old Dominion University’s Educational Foundation Board and received two gubernatorial appointments to the university’s board of visitors. He was elected rector of the board in 1990 and was instrumental in the search for two of the university’s eight presidents. In 1993, George received ODU’s Distinguished Alumnus Award and its highest honor in 1995, the University Medal. His foresight in predicting a more global future led him to support the university’s international engagements and resulted in the naming of the school’s International Education Center as Dragas Hall.
Seeing an urgent need for sound, objective economic analysis of the region’s challenges and prospects, George was instrumental in the founding of the ODU Center for Economic Analysis and Public Policy and led the private fundraising that resulted in the center’s first State of the Region and State of the Commonwealth reports. The center was renamed after his family in 2017 and is currently engaged in widely-cited economic forecasting activities for Virginia.
As a founding director of Virginia Beach Vision, a director of Tidewater Builders Association and a director of the Norfolk Metropolitan Board of Crestar Bank (now SunTrust), he worked tirelessly to create and ensure a favorable business climate in the region.
He left his mark on the cultural landscape as well, supporting various arts organizations and serving as a director of the Contemporary Art Center (now MOCA) in Virginia Beach. George also chaired the building committee that oversaw construction of the current facility.
A competitive athlete and avid tennis player, George founded the Cape Henry Racquet Club and served as its president to create a special place for the local, close-knit tennis community. He was also an accomplished sailor and passionate golfer and enjoyed music immensely.
George also leaves a legacy of philanthropy through gifts to a wide variety of educational, charitable and arts organizations. But having once been nearly homeless himself, George held a special place in his heart for the most vulnerable among us. That lifelong compassion led to a family gift in 2009 to the cities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach,and Chesapeake to address regional family homelessness and give children the stable opportunities so necessary to create successful educational outcomes that help them grow and prosper.
Yet, despite his extensive activities and interests, his dear friends and family members were always George’s highest priority. He is survived by his devoted wife of 59 years, Grace Vakos Dragas; four daughters and sons-in-law, Anita S. Weaver and Hugh Mac Weaver II, Helen E. Dragas and Lewis W. Webb III, Mary D. Shearin and M. Lee Shearin Jr., Jennifer D. Stedfast and Jeffrey M. Stedfast; and 12 adoring grandchildren, Cole Weaver, H. Mac Weaver III, Brooke Weaver, L. Grace Webb, Stuart Webb, L. Warrington Webb IV, Taylor Shearin, Holly Shearin, Lee Shearin, Alden Stedfast, George Stedfast and Ellis Stedfast. He was preceded in death by his brother and business partner, Marcus Dragas; and sisters, Evelyn How and Anita Arvanites.
The family wishes to extend its heartfelt appreciation to Dr. Barbara Parks for her capable care and to a remarkable team of dedicated nurses for their compassionate efforts in George’s final months: Tameka, Christiana, Patience, Amma, Linda, Shakeema and Kim.
A funeral service will be held at 3 p.m., Tuesday, March 26, at Galilee Episcopal Church, followed by a reception at the Princess Anne Country Club.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a gift to ForKids in honor of George’s passion for the region’s most vulnerable children, or to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to honor of George’s love of sailing on the Bay.
Share online condolences with the family at H.D. Oliver Funeral Apts.