Alumna uses Retirement to Start a Business, Write books, and Raise Teenagers

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April 21, 2012

Captain Diane Diekman, class of 1972, uses her 32 years of leadership experience in the Navy to start a businesses, write books, and raise 2 teens - all while enjoying her retirement. Article from the Argus Leader.

The Navy was Just the Beginning

In retirement, Capt. Diane Diekman has tapped her leadership skills to start businesses, write books, raise teens and serve in the VFW Honor Guard

By Dorene Weinstein

“When I retired, I didn’t want to get lazy and lounge around in my pajamas all day,” says Diane Diekman of Sioux Falls.

She had logged 32 years in the Navy and earned the grade of captain by the time she retired eight years ago amid worries she might not have enough to do. But since then, Diekman, 61, has gotten her Realtor’s license, founded a real estate club, started two businesses, written several books and been a single mom to two teenagers. She also runs regularly and serves as part of the VFW Honor Guard at an average of two funerals a week.

“She’s fearless,” says Jylinda White, Diekman’s partner in their Eagle Heart Investments business. “Coming up in the military, and being one of the few women, helped develop her leadership qualities. It’s one of her off-the-charts strengths, being able to handle chaotic situations with ease.”

Moving 13 times and getting fired taught her more life lessons.

Becoming a Navy leader

Growing up on the South Dakota prairie near Clear Lake, “she was shy, always into books” says her sister, Lorraine Paver, 59.

From early on, the timid farm girl knew what she wanted to do: teach school in a one-room country school like the one she went to, says Paver of Clear Lake.

But by the time Diekman went to Augustana College in Sioux Falls, country schools were being phased out, so she shifted course and focused on the Navy, with its exotic lure of travel and independence.

Both sisters joined — Diekman after college and Paver right out of high school.

They come from a patriotic family; four of the five Diekman siblings followed their World War II-serving parents into the military. “We’re a family of Army men and Navy women,” Diekman says.

A few years after joining, Diekman earned a commission through Officer Candidate School and rose through the ranks to become the fourth woman in the aircraft maintenance field. She was ultimately promoted to captain, with hundreds under her command.

At times, she struggled to be the kind of leader the Navy wanted.

By 1981, she was proud to be assigned as assistant department head in her first squadron but faced a dilemma: Her commanding officer regularly bypassed the chain of command and asked the maintenance chief about problems instead of Diekman.

She never protested.

As a result, she was fired by that commanding officer because she didn’t object to being left out of routine updates. She was demoted two positions — from assistant department head back down to branch officer.

It was a painful lesson.

“I made myself two promises that day. The first that I would never fail to stick up for myself or for people who worked for me. ... I would not be intimidated by a senior officer merely because of rank. The second was that I would never fire someone without first explaining shortcomings and giving that person a chance to improve,” she writes in her second autobiography, “Navy Greenshirt: A Leader Made, Not Born.”

Diekman longed to be known as a good leader, not a good female leader. Her philosophy was clear.

“I treated other people with respect, and I got respect,” she says. “I did not try to be a man. I was not the batting eyelashes person. I often saw women who thought they had to compete with men, and they got mouthy. We spent our whole careers working to be equal. I never used the fact that we were women, and I always objected to being treated differently.”

Simply put, “we’re sailors, doing our job.”

She continues her service to the country through her participation in the VFW Honor Guard.

Diekman is very interested in veteran’s issues, says David Parr, commander of the VFW Honor Guard, and attends eight or nine funerals a month for veterans of all branches of the armed services.

“She’s very good at presenting the flag to the next of kin,” Parr says.

Becoming a mom

Diekman had been wanting children since she was 28, but life doesn’t always cooperate. Whenever she moved to a new post, she checked into adoption, but nothing ever panned out, Diekman says.

She even tried artificial insemination. With no results, she made peace with her situation. “If God wanted me to have children, he would give them to me,” she says.

Then she heard a plea at church for foster parents and decided to apply with the idea of adopting a sibling group. “I knew they were harder to get adopted, and I didn’t want an infant,” Diekman says.

Sisters April and Amanda came into her life when they were 7 and 5 years old, and Diekman fell in love.

“I became a mother when I was 50 years old. It was life-changing. I lived by myself for 25 years,” she says.

“She was an overnight parent,” Paver adds.

The transition wasn’t easy. The trauma from an unfortunate home situation and two years in foster care took its toll on the youngsters. It was a roller coaster of emotions living through the placement and adoption, Diekman says.

When you have children from their birth, you can groom them. “By kindergarten, they have their foundations established. They already had those foundations by the time she got them,” Paver says.

“They’re learning to be a family together.”

April, 19, is now a freshman at Augustana College, and her sister, Amanda, is 16, a sophomore at Roosevelt.

Diekman wasn’t afraid to try her hand at being a mom. The military gave her the tools to parent, she explains: Parenting is a box. Rules and expectations are the walls of the box. It’s the kids’ job to try to break out of the box. It’s the parent’s job to make sure kids follow the rules until they’re old enough to climb out of the box on their own.

“I could never have parented the girls 20 years ago. I needed to have that experience in the military of being a leader to parent the girls,” Diekman says.

“I became a good leader in the Navy. That gave me the strength to be fair and tough. I knew I had to hold firm. It was never an issue of, ‘Do they like me?’ I could see what I had to do to be the firm, fair parent.”

As they grow up and find their way, she says, “I encourage my daughters to do whtever they want. I want them to be strong, independent, successful women.”

An author

Diekman decided that being a writer would make an excellent retirement career. Initially, she wanted to preserve her family’s stories and write about her Navy career.

“I had a few stories to tell,” she says.

Diekman had taken a correspondence course in 1994 with the aim of writing children’s literature. But she didn’t like fiction writing much.

So she gravitated to nonfiction, first writing her two autobiographies, self-published in 2001, about growing up in South Dakota and her Navy career: “A Farm In the Hidewood: My South Dakota Home” and “Navy Greenshirt: A Leader Made, Not Born.”

“I thought it would be interesting being a writer,” Diekman says, “but I didn’t realize how expensive it was” to self-publish.

Her love for country music prompted her to write biographies about her favorite singers, Faron Young and Marty Robbins. Determined to find a backer for the books, she contacted the University of Illinois Press, which printed “Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story” in 2007 and “Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins” this year.

That distribution and publishing turned out to be key, Diekman says. “They did all the legwork.”

After six and a half years of work, the Marty Robbins biography was released in February, and Diekman signed books in March at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. It turned into a spontaneous band reunion show, she says. Fifteen people she interviewed for the book showed up, including Robbins’ son and daughter.

“Marty’s son sang along with two harmony songs” with former band members in a tribute to the late singer, Diekman says.

Turning into a runner

In February 1983, Diekman took up running when her squadron started a “fat boy” program. She thought joining the group would make her a caring and supportive leader.

Her initial attempt ended badly. Embarrassed, “I could not run a block,” she realized. She promptly set her own goal to run the nine-mile track on base without stopping.

Every day, she slogged through the pain.

Just over three months later, Diekman was able to run the entire track without stopping. As a result, her confidence grew, and she was motivated to keep trying.

“It’s not how fast you run, it’s how far,” she says.

Nearly 30 years and more than a dozen marathons and ultramarathons later, Diekman has maintained her workout habit and is meticulous about abiding by her two-day rule. “I never miss more than two days without running.”

Realtor, entrepreneur

Diekman’s latest relocation, from Maryland to Sioux Falls almost two years ago, helped pique her interest in real estate investment.

She had read books on the topic and met her business partner, White, at a real estate class they both took several years ago. Diekman began dabbling in the market and now owns four rental properties in other states in addition to a mobile home community owned through the business.

She obtained a Realtor’s license last year but doesn’t plan to use the license to show houses; it’s for her business. “I am an investor. It gives me more contacts,” she says.

She also founded the Sioux Falls Area Real Estate Investors Association to help people connect with each other. The club “is a way to help the everyday newbie invest and demystify the process,” says White, who lives in Virginia but helps with the club.

Diekman’s interests continue to propel her along. Her newest business finds local houses to rehabilitate and matches them with someone who’s willing to do the work. “It’s turning empy houses into homes,” she says.

It’s a good bet that this venture will not be Diekman’s last, but she’s hoping the project will help her accomplish another goal: “to be wealthy by age 70.”

White thinks she’ll succeed.

“Her attitude is that all things are possible if you put your mind to something. You may not know how things will turn out, but you put one foot in front of the other, and things will happen.”