BELDING — Author Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
By Emerson’s scale, former Greenville High School (GHS) teacher and coach Dick Diehl lived quite well indeed. His passing Thursday, at age 86, leaves a hole in the lives of countless former students, friends, family and the community itself.
Born in Mason in December 1925, Diehl attended Mason High School and Michigan State University and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
He taught school in his hometown of Mason before moving to Greenville, where he continued to teach, coach and serve as the school system’s athletic director. Those who knew him well speak of a soft-spoken man who nonetheless maintained an implacable perseverance and determination when it came to the things important to him.
As a track and field coach, he was never one for showy pep talks and inspirational halftime speeches. Instead, Diehl focused on honing his athletes to their sharpest edge, then turning them loose onto the field to achieve whatever they could achieve.
Bill Cook’s friendship with Diehl goes back to 1953, when Cook — then a GHS student athlete — ran high hurdles under Diehl’s tutelage. After graduation and over the years, the two stayed in contact, eventually becoming fast friends.
“With Dick’s help I was able to win the state high hurdle championship,” Cook said. “As a coach, Dick took a softer approach; he didn’t get all revved up. He got me ready by teaching the techniques involved with running hurdles. He ran hurdles in his day and knew what he was talking about. He would teach the basics and develop your conditioning until you were ready to run. He left the rest of it up to the participant.
“He knew if you were going to run, you were going to do your darndest to win. It all worked to my benefit; those results came from good coaching and preparation.”
Diehl’s 40-year marriage to Barbara Walker ended when she passed away in 1996. Two years later, he was married to Donna Johnson of Belding and the two moved in together to Belding.
Through both marriages, Diehl and Cook remained friends.
“(Cook’s wife) Harriette and I moved around a lot in the early days of our marriage,” Cook said. “Dick and I weren’t able to stay in touch as much as we’d have liked, but when we moved back to Greenville, we developed a friendship that was very, very meaningful.”
The Cooks, who winter in Santa Barbara, Calif., got together with Diehl and his wife just a few weeks before his death.
“I feel fortunate we had that last visit,” Cook said. “Donna’s just a lovely, lovely woman, and we had a nice relationship with her, which we will continue.”
Another life touched by Diehl — one of many — is Janet Ralph, president of Greenville Public Schools Board of Education. According to Ralph, Diehl embodied all the traits that, taken together, make up the model teacher.
“He seemed to have the perfect blend of good humor and dignity,” Ralph said. “He was an outstanding math teacher who pushed his students to do their best. My children, who were fortunate enough to be in his class, were very well prepared for their post high school classes.
“I think perhaps the greatest tribute I can give him is to quote from an essay my daughter wrote when she was still in high school. She described him as an incredible man and said, ‘I think I will remember that class long after I forget all the other classes I’ve had.’
“It is pretty special to be remembered after the fact,” Ralph added. “But it speaks very highly of him to have had a student recognize how special he was while she was still in his class.”
Ralph’s story is one that could easily be repeated countless times by the innumerable students who passed through the halls of GHS in the years Diehl taught there.
If the philosophers are right, if our lives are like pebbles tossed upon a still lake, each creating ever-expanding ripples in time’s clear water, then the end results of Diehl’s life well-lived will be felt for years to come.
Funeral services for Diehl will be held on his birthday at 11 a.m. Monday at Hurst Funeral Home, Greenville, with his good friend Alan Guilfoyle serving as celebrant. Visitation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the funeral home.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made to the Education Foundation of Greenville.