Act of Thanksgiving
He got his start in newspapers and would love this headline: $28 million infuses new wave of curriculum in the College of Communication.
Sitting comfortably on his living room couch, Bill Diederich's calm demeanor masks the fact that his mind is racing. He is thinking, always thinking, about any given topic, from world history to communication to photographic reproduction. For several minutes, he explains in detail the technology that was developed to cut the time from the instant a camera shutter clicks to the moment a photograph rolls off the press as part of the morning newspaper.
It’s appropriate that photography was an early passion, the way the lens takes in a scene and reproduces it in exacting detail, often in ways the photographer hadn’t imagined. Diederich’s mind works like a camera, taking in everything and then putting it together in ways no one has imagined. Out of that ability came the vision to get in early on such innovative ideas as cable television, the creation of a 24-hour news channel devoted to — imagine this — the weather, and registering Web domain addresses when people began to buzz about something called the Internet.
“A man I worked with once said, ‘All you have to do is ask Bill Diederich what time it is, and he’ll tell you how to build a watch,’” Diederich says and smiles.
That curiosity brought Diederich, his wife, Mary, and their 13 children a wonderful life. And eventually good fortune that they have chosen to share in making a $28 million gift to Marquette, the largest gift ever made by an individual to the university, to establish the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication as one of the top institutions of its kind in the nation.
Diederich graduated from Marquette in 1951 with a degree in journalism. His focus has shifted back to his alma mater because he believes Marquette is an incubator for the next generation of ideas in the fields of communication. His and Mary’s gift will be used for educating students to be leaders in the converging world of print, broadcast and electronic communication. Curricular innovation, cutting-edge research and access to leading experts in the field will be hallmarks of activities in Johnston Hall in coming years, along with scholarships and professorships. The building itself will get a much-needed renovation.
“I would describe it as an act of thanksgiving,” Diederich says of the gift. “Mary and I have been extremely blessed in every way imaginable and this is our thanks to God.”
Diederich traces his interest in communication to an experience when he was 6 years old growing up in Bloomer, Wis. He and some friends were flying kites off the tops of boxcars when the train started to move and one of the boys fell between the cars. “We dragged him out before the cars ran over him, but he had a broken leg,” Diederich recalls. “Like an idiot, I ran down to the local newspaper, The Bloomer News, and told them all about it. And they wrote it up.”
Diederich’s family moved to Chippewa Falls, Wis., when World War II began and he took a job delivering newspapers. After graduating from high school, he entered the Navy ROTC at Marquette and added on-the-job experience with the student newspaper to his studies. “When I got out of Marquette, I understood every single aspect of the production process of a newspaper,” he says.
Marquette changed Diederich in far more profound ways, too. Most importantly, he met his future wife, Mary, Arts ’52, at a dance during his sophomore year. They married his senior year. They raised 13 children, always putting family first. Also, at Marquette he found an education that stressed ethics and morality. “Marquette built on the moral system of our parents, who felt very strongly about right and wrong. It permeates our thinking about all sorts of issues,” he says.
After two years in the Marines, Diederich planned to attend law school — and was accepted at Harvard. But a friend persuaded him to study business instead. While working toward his M.B.A., Diederich wrote letters to newspaper publishers along the East Coast, offering to do a free business consultation. Frank Batten, leader at Norfolk Newspapers Inc. in Virginia, replied with a list of research questions. Diederich’s report back led to a job offer.
“Mary and I have been extremely blessed in every way imaginable and this is our thanks to God.”
Diederich served in several leadership positions at what became Landmark Communications Inc. before retiring in 1990. Although a diversified company, its claim to fame is cable television operations and creation of the Weather Channel, just one of dozens of ideas that Diederich investigated as part of a committee that met to try to identify the next “big thing” that would change the way people get information.
“One of my talents, I think, is that I have an intense curiosity. When Frank Batten would say, ‘I’d like to know about such and such,’ I would immerse myself in the subject and gather as much information as I possibly could about it,” he says.
Diederich’s skill at research helped Batten identify new ideas to exploit. He wouldn’t pay top dollar to enter a field already crowded with competitors, Diederich says, but would look for opportunities that no one else was thinking about.
The Diederichs’ gift to Marquette is a natural progression of Bill’s interest in the digital revolution in communication. Communicators now have to be comfortable bridging medias, working in print, broadcast and interactive formats. “For a long, long time, I’ve thought about what could be done to assist the established media to remain viable and what could be done to establish new media,” he says. “Our hope is that Marquette graduates will learn how to do that at a place that also provides ethics and morals.”
The Diederichs establish a charitable lead trust
In presenting their gift to the university, Bill and Mary Diederich wanted to make sure they took care of their family as well as future Marquette students. To protect the assets of their estate, they worked with University Advancement to establish a charitable lead trust. The lead trust allows them to pass assets to their children with significant estate tax savings. During the term of the trust, the assets are invested and pay Marquette a fixed income every year for 20 years. At the end of the trust term, the original assets are returned to the family. Charitable lead trusts allow donors to benefit the people and causes they care about. By supporting Marquette, the Diederichs help ensure the values excellence, faith, leadership and service endure for new generations of graduates.