A Life: S. Whitney Dickey, 1923 — 2013; ‘He Was the Most Significant Example of a Person Leading By Doing’
Lebanon — No one would be accused of hyperbole for saying that the late Whit Dickey and his wife, Closey, have helped foster change in the Upper Valley.
In fact, it would be an understatement.
Without the vision, leadership and financial backing of the Dickeys, it would be safe to say that Lebanon and much of the Upper Valley would look and feel quite different — and the arts and cultural community would be greatly diminished.
Without the Dickeys’ help, AVA gallery would not be what and where it is today; Northern Stage might not have gotten off the ground; Lebanon College could have failed; Alice Peck Day Hospital’s reconstruction might have taken a lot longer and a host of other nonprofit organizations such as Opera North, Vital Communities, the Kilton Library, the Upper Valley Land Trust, Camarata New England, N.H. Charitable Foundation, the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College and others would have suffered.
Whit Dickey died in February at 89. And although his integrity, business acumen and his philanthropy were at the forefront of his life, those who knew him remember his fairness, loyalty and the twinkle of his green eyes, an expression that conveyed a keen sense of humor.
They also remember him as a fisherman, and they recall his extraordinary sailing and skiing abilities that led him to push the envelope in the face of a challenging slope or an unfavorable wind. He loved designing houses and reworking land, and his skills as an architect and landscaper might have taken him down that career path in another life, they say.
“He was a real Renaissance man — a good businessman, who loved art and the arts, and he was a philanthropist,” said Linda Galvan, a cellist and founding member of Camarata New England, who knew Dickey for a number of years and played at his memorial service in April.
He supported classical music and opera, but his musical tastes were eclectic with a passion for jazz, swing and folk and a love of Louis Armstrong, The Weavers and Joan Baez, his daughter Clo Giffen said.
“He seemed to enjoy life all the time. He never seemed bored, and he was always engaged no matter what he was doing or who he was talking to,” added Carlos Galvan, the chairman of Camarata’s board.
Despite considerable opposition, Dickey pushed AVA Gallery to move from the space in the back of the Dartmouth Bookstore in Hanover to Lebanon.
“Everybody said it would kill us, but he insisted and found us this lovely space (in the H.W. Carter & Sons Building on Bank Street in Lebanon). Now, we have teaching space, and we couldn’t be in a better place,” said Bente Torjusen, AVA’s executive director.
“Whit had a real passion for art and such a keen eye for art,” but at the same time he was pragmatic and got the gallery on sound financial footing, providing personal help and getting others ... to help get the books in order,” Torjusen said.
“He always asked for sound numbers and how we were going to make something work financially. He was a marvelous blend of idealism and practicality,” she added.
A small plaque of appreciation hangs to the left of AVA’s main entrance noting the contribution of Whit and Closey Dickey.
“Whit and Closey were actively involved in our last two capital campaigns, and they played a very significant part of our 2004 campaign. They were the lead donors,” providing $1 million for the reconstruction of the hospital, said former Alice Peck Day Hospital Chief Executive Officer Harry Dorman. A wing of the building is named for the Dickeys’ late son, Don Dickey.
Lebanon College is in the middle of a capital campaign and is working to reorient curriculum toward classes for training in nursing and the medical industry, efforts encouraged by the Dickeys, said the school’s Chairman of the Board of Directors Arthur Gardiner.
“If we succeed in our current endeavor to make Lebanon College an integral part of the community and a solid institution, it will be because of the indispensable role played by Whit and Closey Dickey. I find it difficult to convey the depth of my feelings for them and how important they’ve been to the college,” Gardiner said.
Whit Dickey was the first of three initial donors to send a check in support of the creation of Northern Stage, said Brooke Ciardelli, former artistic director of the theater group that she started in 1997.
“He was the most significant example of a person leading by doing and by his behavior. He was a powerful leader in that way, and the true definition of a citizen,” Ciardelli said. “It was an honor to get to know him.”
Shortly after their arrival in the Upper Valley in April 1978 when Whit Dickey took over as president of the National Bank of Lebanon, the Dickeys fell in love with the Upper Valley. They realized that they had found a home, a place to put down permanent roots, Closey Dickey said.
They built a house big enough for their five sons and daughter and their growing families. It’s off Hardy Hill Road on a beautifully landscaped lot with nice long-range views. Although Closey Dickey was the true gardener in the family, Whit Dickey had the vision to see beauty through the brush overgrowing the undeveloped lot and that a small stream could become a lovely, gracefully landscaped pond. He also turned a dirt embankment that probably should have been retained with a wall into a heather garden with a “quilt-board of colors,” said his son John Dickey.
His vision kicked in again when in the 1990s, he bought out-of-favor seaside acreage in at the head of Somes Sound in Mt. Desert, Maine, that had been quarried and scarred by mining, John Dickey said, adding that his father worked with a backhoe operator to turn the land into a charmingly landscaped property with two houses for the family.
“We’ve had 35 years of total happiness since we’ve moved here (to Lebanon),” Closey Dickey said. “He was very, very happy here, and I was very, very happy here. We are some of the luckiest people in the world, and Whit strongly felt that we should help this community where we could.”
Whit Dickey was born in New York City on Nov. 14, 1923, and was the third of four children. His parents, Charles D. and Catherine Colt Dickey, were a prominent banking family. They raised their children to appreciate art and to have a sense of social responsibility. Like his father, Whit Dickey went to St. Paul’s School in Concord and to Yale University.
World War II interrupted his college studies. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served as second lieutenant fighter pilot. That’s when he met Closey Virden Faulkner of Richmond, Va., the summer before he shipped out to the fighting in Europe. She was 17 and had just graduated from high school.
There was little to do that summer of 1944 for young girls in Richmond — “most of the boys had gone off to the war” — when Closey Faulkner and a girlfriend spotted two “good looking” young fliers — Whit Dickey and a buddy — who seemed to be suffering from the heat. The girls invited the pilots to come for a swim at the country club pool, which they did, “even though they had to pay 75 cents to get in,” Closey Dickey said.
That evening, they went to a dance at the country club and had dinner. And the next morning, the pilots left for the war.
“I didn’t see him again for eight years,” she said.
In 1952, Closey Faulkner, who had graduated from Sweet Briar and was teaching in New York City, and Whit Dickey, who had survived the war and graduated from Yale, were reintroduced by a friend. (It was sort of luck.) They soon began dating — he’d take her sailing and skiing — and they married a year later.
The union would have never happened had his luck not held a few years earlier over Italy. With the evening at the country club in Richmond still a fresh memory, the newly arrived Lt. Dickey took a P-47 Thunderbolt that had just returned from combat out on a practice flight. The plane had some mechanical problems. The engine burst into flames. He had to climb out of the cockpit to bail out, but as he tried to get clear of the plane, the tail of the aircraft hit him, shattering both his legs.
At 500 feet from the ground, he finally managed to get his parachute opened, and as luck would have it, he landed on springy barbed wire fence that broke his fall and saved his life. He spent the next year in a hospital recovering and regaining his mobility. But to his lasting regret, he missed the rest of the action of the war.
After eschewing the family tradition of going into banking, Whit Dickey took a job working with the American Brakeshoe Co. with positions in New York City, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey.
In 1960, Dickey left American Brakeshoe, an industry he believed was fading, and took a job entirely out of his field but in his blood — banking. The family moved to Bennington, Vt., where he became the president of the First National Bank of North Bennington. Unlike his father, who was a partner in J.P. Morgan and Drexel & Co., Dickey found his calling in community banking and quickly built a reputation for helping small businesses. He also had the instincts of a good banker. He renamed the small North Bennington bank as Catamount National Bank to give it more statewide appeal.
By the time he left 13 years later to head a regional bank in Massachusetts, he had opened five branch offices and increased Catamount’s assets from $7 million to $33 million.
His strong belief in being a community banker had served him well in Bennington and with the customers in his new position with the National Bank of New Bedford, but not with his board of directors. They wanted to take the bank in a different direction, Closey Dickey said.
“They didn’t see eye to eye. He wasn’t going to change what he believed in, and he was out of work.”
Luck was with him again when he landed the Lebanon job in 1978. Under his leadership, the bank prospered. The National Bank of Lebanon merged and became First New Hampshire Bank and eventually was purchased for cash by the Bank of Ireland, which sold to Citizens Bank.
“When we sold to the Bank of Ireland, we had all these lovely Irish people in here, and they were a lot of fun,” Closey Dickey said.
That sale allowed Whit Dickey to retire at 63, she said, adding that the bank also was becoming too large for his liking and getting away from its community banking roots.
Each merger was good for the shareholders of the National Bank of Lebanon and for Whit Dickey who had a lot of stock, said John Dickey.
“We were very fortunate. Every time the bank sold, the shareholders did well, and that was good for him, our family and for the community.
“He really believed that the community had been good to him and that he needed to return some of that wealth to the community, that he owed it to the community that had helped him,” John Dickey said.
Indirectly, Dickey’s stewardship also helped provide the funds for Mascoma Savings Bank, which owned 15 percent of the Bank of Lebanon, to start the Mascoma Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has provided more than $3 million for community causes since its creation in 1987, Mascoma President Stephen F. Christy said.
While he was running the Bank of Lebanon, Dickey convinced his board of directors that it would be a good investment to support local artists and established a budget for buying works that he displayed in the bank for public viewing. The collection was a stop on AVA’s art walk in Lebanon, Torjusen said.
“He had a remarkable art collection, and really what he did comes from a long tradition of business helping the arts,” she said.
In retirement, Dickey didn’t remain idle. He continued to adventurously pursue his passion for back-country skiing, sailing, fly fishing and traveling.
“We never went on a tour. We’d just go on our own, except one time in Africa when we went on a safari. We liked to just strike out,” Closey Dickey said.
They also drove out West on a number occasions to see the country and to ski with friends, and they sailed the Caribbean and to Venezuela, a trip that took the better part of two years.
Whit Dickey was an adventurer, an expert sailor and graceful skier, Giffen, his daughter, said.
“He’d always take on a good wind and not worry about the consequences. He was willing to go into spots that he probably shouldn’t have. I can remember running aground a few times,” she said.
“But that adventurous spirit allowed us to experience things that we never would have, had he been more cautious and less willing to take a risk. That’s a real legacy that he passed on to his children.”
Whit Dickey knew the value of a dollar, and never spent money foolishly. And he might have not worn the fanciest clothes or had the newest car, “but he loved his state and his town and when he could help both, he loved to do that,” John Dickey said.
“He’d much rather give money to charity than spend it on himself.”
Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.