A headmaster looks back at an era of change

Before a packed audience at the Rappahannock County Library Oct. 10, longtime Rappahannock resident and influential philanthropic consultant Bill Dietel shared stories of how he took one of the foremost independent girls’ schools in the nation from the Eisenhower Era into the Age of Aquarius.

Bill Dietel answers a question after his talk at the library.
Bill Dietel answers a question after his talk at the library. Cathie Shiff | Rappahannock News

Speaking of his days as principal of the Emma Willard School for Girls from 1961 to 1970, Dietel told the 100 or so members of the crowd at the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community’s “Second Friday at the Library” lecture that when he learned he was a candidate for the Emma Willard post, he was a 30-something assistant dean at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.

Among the other reasons he was considered for the job (which may or may not include his trademark “baggy gray flannel trousers”), Dietel said, he credited the alumni contacts of his wife, Linda, an “Emma girl” herself.

Within the week, he and Linda were on campus to attend a dinner party he called one of the “most excruciating evenings we ever had.” Seated between a pair of elderly school mistresses who took turns offering advice, they spent the evening listening to one and then the other, as if stuck at an interminable tennis match. “They had been instructed to shape us up in case we were chosen for the job,” Dietel said, chuckling.

On the way home that night, they decided that Bill would accept the job if it were offered. It was, and the couple and their four young children soon moved to a new life at the Troy, N.Y., campus. Named for its visionary founder, the Emma Willard School was not only the oldest boarding school for girls in the nation, it was also the first to offer female students the same challenging science and math curriculum as was offered at all-male institutions.

“This was no finishing school. Suddenly, the responsibility for the education of 330 young women hit me like a ton of bricks. If not for Linda, I would have fled!” Dietel said. Before he earned his degrees from Yale and Princeton, he was a graduate of the Phillips Exeter Academy, which was a males-only institution during his years there. He now marveled at the expressiveness of the young women, as compared with boys of the same age, and he soon began to learn about the hopes and dreams of the achievement-oriented high-schoolers.

Dietel felt that some students at Emma Willard needed more freedom. “The school really was quite repressive — the school rule book was more than 30 pages long,” he said. He described how some of the students got off campus by following the system of underground utility tunnels connecting the buildings with the power plant, where there was a “door to the outside world.” As with many disciplinary issues, he used humor to make his point with the offenders, surprising them one night in the tunnel with a yell from a spooky face, thanks to a flashlight held beneath his chin.

Other students, he felt, yearned for change. “John F. Kennedy had just been elected president, and change was in the air. The fact that they were removed from being able to take action was really bothersome to some of the students,” he said. As a result, the school brought in interesting speakers to fill out the academic program.

Meanwhile, Dietel himself realized that change was needed at the school. Some of the faculty members, he said, seemed to date all the way back to the school’s 1821 founding. Besides “refreshing the faculty,” he also wanted to attract more male teachers. He also longed to improve the “deplorable” housing for faculty and to increase their pay, which at that time was less than $3,000 a year for many. He would need money, and the $13,000 that the school’s traditional fundraising efforts typically brought in annually would not be enough.

Fundraising experts advised Dietel that the school needed to get serious about raising funds, and that his job as principal meant he needed to lead the charge. It wasn’t long before he met with success, and he looked back with pride at the more competitive salaries, improved faculty housing and brand new sports facilities for the students that soon dotted the campus.

It was also time for leaders at “Emma Willie” to diversify the student body and consider going coed. In the end, the school did not admit males, but outstanding minority students began to attend the school, Dietel said, thanks largely to a program called “A Better Chance.” “This diversification was one of the best things that happened to independent schools in the 1960s,” Dietel said.

After nine years at Emma Willard of “really throwing ourselves into the effort,” he and Linda agreed that it was time to move on. The board soon hired a new principal from the West Coast, and Dietel began an almost two-decade-long career as executive vice president, and later president, of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. However, their ties to the school on the Hudson did not cease; two of their daughters attended Emma Willard.

At the end of his presentation, a member of the audience asked Dietel if he had any comments about the schools in Rappahannock County. Without hesitating, he replied, “I think it is appalling that the public school system does not meet with local independent schools to collaborate, so together they could offer enriching activities that neither group is able to do independently. This is a great community that could be even greater as a result.”