The tale of CMU donor William Dietrich centers on family and education
How he got all the money -- and why he gave it away
September 8, 2011 4:00 AM
William S. Dietrich II, center, is greeted by Raymond Lane, chairman of Carnegie Mellon University's board of trustees, as his daughter, Anna Elizabeth Diemer, of San Francisco, smiles at left.
William S. Dietrich II, 73, joins in a group photograph during Wednesday's ceremonies at Carnegie Mellon University.
By Timothy McNulty and Bill Schackner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bill Dietrich sometimes watched his mother make three breakfasts for his father, who let each one go cold on the coffee table as he worked furiously on his company's finances.
Her devotion also saved her son from the principal when he exploded a firecracker in a pencil sharpener and later in life helped keep his dreams alive about jumping from rural Conneaut Lake High School to Princeton University.
The philanthropist and former steel executive reminded a crowd at Carnegie Mellon University Wednesday, upon announcing his gift of $265 million to the university, and its naming its College of Humanities and Social Sciences after his mother, that one's school is called "alma mater" -- Latin for "nurturing mother" -- for good reason.
"Underpinning all our achievements and accomplishments is a simple sense of being loved," he said. "It's that feeling of security that allows us to take the risk, dream the dream and dare to live life with the courage that is forged by nurturing and abiding care."
Mr. Dietrich's gift is one of the 10 largest ever by an individual to higher education in the United States, university officials said.
William S. Dietrich II, 73, was born May 13, 1938, in Pittsburgh to Kenneth and Marianna Brown Dietrich, who had met while students at Thiel College in Greenville.
His father -- a ukelele-playing card player and salesman -- worked in the chemical industry before moving the family to Conneaut Lake in 1947 to run a small hotel. Bill Dietrich graduated from high school there in 1955.
In 1959, his father started a small lumber company near Blairsville, which would become Dietrich Industries, a steel distribution and products company. A year after graduating from Princeton in 1960, the young Dietrich came back to work for the firm, taking over its day-to-day operations a few years later and transforming it into the country's largest manufacturer of light steel framing for construction, with 19 plants in 17 states employing more than 1,800 people.
In 1978, he decided to return to school, enrolling at Pitt and earning his Ph.D. in political science six years later. In the late 1980s, he began working on the manuscript for the book "In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: The Political Roots of American Economic Decline," a protectionist warning about Japan's growing economic power, researching and writing from 5 to 8 a.m. before putting in a full day of work at his office.
Between the writing and his duties at the company, he worked about 90 hours a week.
"One of Bill's superb qualities is he stays focused. He does not let the end goal run into distractions," said attorney Chuck Queenan, the senior counsel at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart who would help with the sale of the steel firm a few years later.
Mr. Dietrich sold his company in 1996 to Worthington Industries, an international steel processing company based in Columbus with 73 facilities and 8,000 employees in 11 countries. Mr. Dietrich remained a director at Worthington until 2008.
The financier had a scholarly library adjacent to his business office on Grant Street, which impressed the incoming executive director of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Rick Stafford, when he was meeting Mr. Dietrich and other board members in 1991.
Mr. Dietrich's focus on academia would influence the development group's emphasis on the region's medical and educational institutions, a big part of Pittsburgh's sales pitch today.
"I immediately liked him. He was very direct, punctual and punctuated," said Mr. Stafford, who is now a professor of public policy at CMU's H. John Heinz III College. "He never sought the limelight in all my experience, but at the same time would take major leadership roles."
He applied his scholarly nature to investments, too. "He is a guy who is always trying to learn something," said investor and philanthropist Milton Fine. "If you were having lunch with him and questioning him about investments he is always turning the tables, saying, what do you think? What are you doing? Tell me your ideas."
Mr. Dietrich politely refused an investment in the new magazine Pittsburgh Quarterly when former Post-Gazette business editor Doug Heuck launched it in 2006 but said he might be able to help in another way. He started writing a series of award-winning profiles of Pittsburgh business titans for the quarterly, and the short biographies were collected this year in the book "Eminent Pittsburghers," a play on Lytton Strachey's 1918 "Eminent Victorians."
"He wrote about people like Carnegie, Frick and the other great business and philanthropic giants of Pittsburgh, but in fact Bill is taking his place among them," Mr. Heuck said. "He is an extremely successful business tycoon but has more of the sensibility of an English major and writer. Put those together with his philanthropy, and he will clearly have tremendous effects on Pittsburgh for a long, long time."
The effects were already reflected Wednesday around the celebratory CMU campus, where members of a fraternity stayed up overnight to paint the words "Thank You, Bill" onto a beloved school landmark known simply as "the Fence."
Several hundred people who gathered nearby under a tent for Wednesday's gift celebration laughed and then applauded when board of trustees Chairman Ray Lane repeated the dollar amount.
"Let me say it again, just to confirm that you heard me correctly," he said. "Two-hundred sixty five million dollars. Thank you, Bill."
"My mother would be thrilled to have her name associated with this wonderful school," Mr. Dietrich said. "My hope is that [by] naming this college for her you will remember some of the values that made her life so meaningful.
"Pittsburgh has many wonderful institutions which enrich our lives, but Carnegie Mellon University has a special place on this list for me.
"I've always valued education and never stopped learning, and it's hard not to be aware of what goes on at [Carnegie Mellon]. This university puts Pittsburgh on anybody's world map of great research cities."
He said its students and faculty win Tonys, Oscars and Nobel Prizes.
"They never stop exploring. They never stop looking for a better way of doing something," he said.