Obituary: William S. Dietrich II / Driven industrialist, then driven philanthropist

May 13, 1938 - Oct. 6, 2011

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

William S. Dietrich II -- a steel executive, civic leader and author who willed himself into becoming one of the great philanthropists in Pittsburgh history -- died Thursday from complications from cancer. He was 73.

The last few weeks of Mr. Dietrich's life were packed with headlines regarding his gifts of $265 million to Carnegie Mellon University and $125 million to Pitt, both of them among the largest donations ever by an individual to higher education in the United States.

The story behind that story is just as remarkable: one of a self-made man who reinvented himself time and again, who poured the last dozen years of his life into making his charitable trust mighty enough to make an indelible mark on life in his home city.

"Bill was a very interesting fellow. One thing about him was he was passionate about certain things," said PNC Financial Services Group CEO Jim Rohr, a friend for some three decades. "With the passion he threw into it, he rebuilt Dietrich Industries. When he realized it was strategically a good idea to sell the company, he did that. Then he became an extraordinary investor and venture capitalist. And then an extraordinary philanthropist."

He was an exacting man. He charted the specifics of what would happen after his death, from the creation of the foundation that will now issue the funding to the schools to the writing of his own obituary.

He vowed to give his only daughter a "modest amount" of money after his passing, explaining that his time at Princeton University made him uncomfortable with inherited wealth.

While still in the steel business years ago, he earned a master's and Ph.D. in political science from Pitt and also kept an academic library in his Grant Street business office where he worked from 5 to 8 a.m. every day, writing his first book.

Mr. Dietrich was in hospice care in the last week of 2010, suffering with gallbladder cancer that doctors said could not be cured, when Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon visited to pay his last respects.

After a few short pleasantries, the CMU trustee "whipped out a folder filled with papers to set up the foundations, details of the gift he was going to make and the amount Carnegie Mellon was going to get. I was just dumbfounded," Mr. Cohon said. "It really took me by surprise. But the organization and communication of it was in classic Bill fashion. Very organized, directly to the point. He took you right through it."

He also was funny. His own obituary says: "An enthusiastic but mediocre golfer, Mr. Dietrich candidly admitted to possessing the worst golf swing in Western Pennsylvania." Mr. Rohr confirmed this, saying his warm-up oddly involved swinging his club up and down, instead of back and forth.

Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg first met Mr. Dietrich about 25 years ago at a dinner honoring the publication of the industrialist's book, "In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: The Political Roots of American Economic Decline."

The pair hit it off -- Mr. Nordenberg was a graduate of Thiel College, where Mr. Dietrich's parents, Kenneth and Marianna, met -- though that did not keep Mr. Dietrich from scolding the Pitt leader from time to time.

Mr. Dietrich served on several boards, including those for the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Carnegie Museums and UPMC Health System.

During a meeting while serving as chair of Pitt's board, Mr. Dietrich once warned Mr. Nordenberg to cut down on his public commitments, saying it was hurting his focus on the university. About 15 minutes after the meeting, he called the chancellor and said he changed his mind: He wanted him to chair a Boy Scouts food drive that year. (Mr. Dietrich was an Eagle Scout.)

At the banquet at the end of the drive, he had another surprise. Speaking to the crowd, and without clearing it with the chancellor, Mr. Dietrich got up and said, "I'm so pleased Mark has agreed to be the chair for a second year in a row."

"Since you knew he would do his all for it too, I just smiled and knew it was worthwhile," Mr. Nordenberg recalled.

Mr. Dietrich was raised in Pittsburgh and Conneaut Lake, Crawford County, where his father moved the family after his soap business went bust, and ran a small hotel. The young man saw a listing for Princeton in a World Book Encyclopedia, saying it sent more Rhodes Scholars to Oxford than any other American school, and resolved to go there. He graduated in 1960 and spent six months of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.

Mr. Dietrich then began as a salesman for his father's new steel company, which sold scrap to manufacturers that could be used for unexposed steel for items such as the backs of refrigerators or bottoms of stoves. He took over the firm while still in his 20s, moving it into producing steel wall studs.

Building materials proved lucrative, and by 1996 annual sales reached $350 million. He sold the company that year for $178 million. He was divorced, had one child and his parents died a decade earlier, so he used the money to create the Dietrich Charitable Trusts.

He ran the trusts the same way he did his company. The best private equity funds were not looking for new partners, so he traveled the globe selling them on the good works of Western Pennsylvania's universities and nonprofits. To wring out every penny, he flew coach, even to Asia.

"He brought his sales techniques to the mission of the foundation and sold it to those funds to gain admission," said another long-time friend, investor Mark Laskow, who will be the board chairman for the new Dietrich Foundation. "Beyond the sheer dollars of his gifts, he is leaving behind a set of valuable relationships and the residue of his hard work."

The structure of his gifts is as structured as their benefactor. With his death, he told "Carnegie Mellon Today" magazine, all of the $500 million in his charitable trusts will go to the foundation, which will disburse the money to the schools. Every year, its assets are expected to grow faster than its percentage-based distributions, meaning the gifts could grow over time.

Pitt is naming its School of Arts and Sciences in honor of his father, and Carnegie Mellon is naming its College of Humanities and Social Sciences after his mother.

His original plans were for the gifts to be announced only after his death, but that changed in the last weeks of his life, thinking it would bring positive attention to the schools.

"He never wanted any recognition for himself," Mr. Nordenberg said. "He only changed that view over the course of the last few months when he became ill. He was moved in large part for the good for the institutions."

In May, Mr. Dietrich published a book of profiles called "Eminent Pittsburghers," taken from articles he wrote for "Pittsburgh Quarterly." He was working on another, "American Recessional: The U.S. Decline and the Rise of China."

While he seemed to will his life to go where he wanted, death was a different story. "They stamped me a one-way ticket, and my train leaves a little sooner than everybody else's," he told Robert Mendelson at "Carnegie Mellon Today." "But I have no regrets; I went further in life than I ever thought I would go, and I've enjoyed every minute of it."

He is survived by his daughter, Anne Elizabeth Diemer of San Francisco. There will be no visitation. Services are private.

Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?