Bill Dietel Remembered

I’m sure you all read Tim Carrington’s beautiful “remembrance” of Bill that appeared in the Rappahannock News. Aside from that, I asked Bud Meyer to share his memories of Bill as they worked together to cofound Foothills Forum nearly a decade ago. Bud’s wonderful reminiscence will appear in the next “Foothills Insider” that will be sent soon to our supporters. Read it below.

Andy Alexander
Chair, Foothills Forum

Working with Bill Dietel was a sheer privilege.

We’d meet, same time, same table at Skyward Cafe in Flint Hill, up front on the left. Always genial, Bill would join me for coffee to hear the latest download on life and times at the nonprofit Foothills Forum. Never more than an hour. I always left better for the encounter.

Bill and Linda Dietel already were well established leaders and founders in Rappahannock’s nonprofit universe. Being pulled into Bill Dietel’s orbit signed me up for a master class in strategy, organization and innovation. Bill’s enthusiasm for life made it fun. He had you believing that you could, in fact, change the world.

How Bill came to be a co-creator of a local news nonprofit shows how he ticked. Though nearly three decades separated us in age, we connected first through professional backgrounds in organized philanthropy, later in what would become a shared belief that we lived in a special place worth preserving. My Midwestern dairy farm upbringing and education stood in contrast to Bill’s Ivy League roots.

Bill was a regular at the monthly Rappahannock News Fourth Estate Friday gatherings. This particular month in 2013 a larger-than-usual crowd of citizens joined the news crew at the old Tula’s to share views. Over free java and coffee cake, we in the public praised the weekly newspaper’s startling reporting on developments in Little Washington, but panned a scary story and graphic about drug use that scarcely mentioned the county. The crowd soon agreed that the county and its readers deserved deeper reporting on big, unresolved issues. Bill thumped the drum for better education coverage.

Not surprisingly, the newspaper staffers agreed. They’d seen their business model – revenues from advertising and circulation – crater thanks to the Internet. They wanted to maintain eroding coverage, but were spread too thin to report on even the most basic news beats. When the coffee gathering ended, Bill and the late Jed Duvall (a stalwart CBS newsman) and I went around the corner to raise the question: What, if anything, could be done about this, especially in a place like Rappahannock?

From my past work with a national journalism funder, I was aware of the early adopters in the rise of nonprofit news, folks toying with the idea readers would pay for quality news. Jed and I had contributed articles and commentary to the weekly and knew the ways of the newsroom. Bill offered up names of folks who would join the next phase of the discussions. He called us the Ginger Group, and I had to look it up: A small team meant to “ginger up” – enliven or stimulate ideas. Bill brought extensive experience in the inner workings of nonprofits and funding, and Jed and Jill Duvall donated their own small foundation as the base for what would become Foothills Forum. When we committed to develop a county-wide survey of residents about local issues, Bill confidently said he’d find the funding to pay for it. And he did.

But we had a new concept to fiddle with, and we hit the road to introduce the idea of community support for local news, getting feedback and shaping a new organization’s direction. Over the next six months, the Bill and Bud Tour took us into living rooms and coffee shops to explain – never more than an hour – the basics to some 75 Rappahannock regulars. We cut across the political and ideological spectrums, touching base with leaders in public safety, government, education and business. We met enthusiasm and skepticism. We were lectured on local politics and rural ways. We found ample support and a handful of skeptics. When I had a scheduling conflict, Bill went alone to see former congressman Ben Jones, another frequent newspaper commentator. Bill said Cooter listened for an hour, arms folded across his belly, before scoffing at the whole thing.

At the Ginger Group meeting in which we’d discuss the new venture’s name, I brought forth my own favorite: RappAhead. Quipped Jed: Isn’t that what the nuns did to you in third grade? But Roger Piantadosi, the paper’s editor, suggested Foothills to describe the region, and Betsy Dietel came up with Forum for alliteration and purpose.

By February 2014, we had a framework for a new organization, a nonprofit with a board and a mission to delve into and report on the issues that matter to Rappahannock. The survey provided us with a baseline of detailed data on the county’s residents and readers. We survived early mistakes (pro tip: File your tax statements every year or face loss of your nonprofit status) and slowly established a body of explanatory journalism that began getting notice and winning awards.

Throughout, Bill championed the cause, introducing Foothills Forum to a growing universe of donors and supporters. When the pandemic hit and Zoom meetings replaced those morning coffee sessions, I looked forward to seeing and hearing Bill on our fundraising committee calls.

The week Bill passed away, he and I were told to look in the mail for a belated, pandemic-delayed award from the Virginia Press Foundation. My last email to him asked if he’d gotten his 2020 VPF Leadership & Innovation Award.

“It arrived in the mail, the end of last week,” his daughter Betsy got back to me.

“He would have been thrilled,” she wrote. “He was enormously proud of what Foothills has accomplished and the model it provides for other communities across the country.”

Betsy added that Foothills is one of three organizations where the Dietel family would like contributions sent if friends and family are so inclined.

Bud Meyer
Chair Emeritus, Foothills Forum