A Life: Dieter Seier; ‘Dieter had a really rich internal world’

  • Dieter Seier and Valerie Clark Burke getting married by Woodstock Justice of the Peace Fred Doubleday in 1994. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Dieter Seier, right, and a friend sailing in an undated photograph. (Famliy photograph)

  • Dieter Seier plays tennis in an undated photograph. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/26/2022 9:39:35 PM
Modified: 6/27/2022 10:34:13 AM

CORNISH — Bookshelves overflow with masterworks of literature, from Montaigne’s Essays to Dante’s Divine Comedy at the neatly kept home on Plainfield Road in the center of Cornish Flat.

On the walls hang colorful, whimsical oil portraits painted by the homeowner’s hand. Six mini-fridges in two rooms do the work of a single large refrigerator. The wood floors are spotless and shiny. Planks lay stacked in a side room waiting to be cut or milled. A whiff of freshly hewn wood mixed with aromatic cooking spices lingers in the air.

The 183-year-old house in the heart of village, across the road from the Cornish Fire Department and a stroll to the former Cornish General Store, is a memorial to the inspiration and quirkiness of Dieter Seier, an intensely private widower who moved to Cornish with Valerie Clark Burke, his late wife, in 1994 and where they spent the ensuing years carefully restoring their home piece by piece.

Seier — pronounced “sire” — may have, by the measure of modern society, led an obscure life. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a full life.

“Dieter had a really rich internal world. He was sustained by it,” said Valerie’s daughter, Tyler Clark Burke, of Toronto, as she gathered with family in the kitchen of her mom and Seier’s home last week on Plainfield Road.

Kevin Clark, of Woodstock, Seier’s brother-in-law, described him as “a one-man contractor-carpenter-painter-electrician-artist-craftsman.”

Dieter Seier was killed by a gunshot wound to his torso in Woodstock on June 14 during a “family dispute” between the alleged assailant and his mother “that related to property and money,” according to police. Seier, who would have turned 68 on Tuesday, accompanied June Wilson that day to the home she owned on Slayton Terrace, where her son, Jay Wilson, lived. June Wilson was preparing the home for sale and planned to move her son to Rutland.

Jay Wilson, 45, later trained the gun on himself and took his own life, police said.

Seier’s violent death and the glaring media attention it drew in the following days was antithetical to the life Seier lived, family members said, a life so intensely private that even though he lived in the heart of Cornish Flat for almost three decades, he was a virtual unknown in the village.

“I’ve lived here for a long time and I like to think that at one time or another I’ve met everyone here but I had never heard of him,” said Peter Burling, a former state representative and state senator from Cornish.

A man of abstemious habit who bought dented cans of food to save dimes off the purchase price and canvassed Upper Valley recycling centers for discarded appliances and building materials to repurpose, Seier “didn’t own a gun. That was not his thing. He was a quiet, peaceful person,” said Tyler Clark Burke.

Seier’s sister-in-law Pam Kozlowski called his death at the hands of a gunman a “tragic irony.”

Dieter was “just someone who had nothing to do with gun culture,” Tyler said. “It is so hard to imagine this is how he died,” she added, saying the manner of Dieter’s death was “like getting hit by lightning.”

Born in Germany, Seier’s parents emigrated to Canada in 1956 when he was 2 years old, and he grew up with three siblings in Winnipeg, where he as a teenager he excelled at lacrosse and had one of his teeth knocked out playing ice hockey, said his younger brother, Frank Seier, a human rights lawyer in Vancouver, B.C.

Frank Seier said his older brother “wasn’t a great student” but nonetheless had a roving intellect and devoured books. (Family members recall later in life Dieter driving to Hanover and spending the morning reading books at Baker Library at Dartmouth College.)

“Most of the time in school he spent on art,” Frank Seier said. “Dieter was an artist at heart.”

Dieter’s parents — his father was an upholsterer who later became an electrician — owned apartments and after high school he went to work for them as the apartment manager. That was how Dieter picked up his building and handyman skills, his brother said, the same skills he later used to renovate the run-down village house he and Valerie Clark Burke had purchased on Plainfield Road in Cornish Flat.

There was no form of art at which Dieter was unwilling to try his hand, Frank Seier said. Dieter picked up photography and built a darkroom in one of his parent’s apartments and then took to pottery, silk screening, painting and even glasswork.

“He was very embedded in the artistic community in Winnipeg,” Frank Seier said.

It was through the Winnipeg arts scene that Dieter met and fell in love with Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised and Boston-educated Valerie Clark Burke, an arts organizer with two daughters, Tyler and Wylie, who had moved to Winnipeg with her first husband.

Eventually, Dieter and Val moved to the Upper Valley to be near Val’s brother, Clark, who owned and ran the Village Inn in Woodstock, and their sister, Kozlowski, a Hofstra Law School graduate who is now clerk of the Lebanon District Court in Lebanon.

Dieter and Val initially moved to Hartland, where they were caretakers of a house for a year. They got married in 1994 and that same year purchased the Plainfield Road house for $19,000.

Art was at the center of their lives.

Val managed the Woodstock Town Hall Theater for Pentangle and then worked for 12 years in administration at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center.

Dieter, when not working on their house would take building or handyman jobs and volunteer for arts organizations, such as designing and making a white clapboard farmhouse for a 1998 production of Oklahoma! in Woodstock that a reviewer for Valley News gushed “was realistic enough to set off a Pavlovian response from the realtors in the audience.”

They hand-made their own Christmas cards and even wrapping paper for presents.

And there was seemingly no home repair project that Dieter could not handle on his own. He might read an idea in passing and then turn it into a reality, Tyler said, like the time he installed a radiant heating system underneath the floorboards of his and Val’s home.

“He’d go to the library and get books on how to do these things and figure it out himself,” Tyler said, noting that Dieter installed the radiant heating system “like 20 years before anyone else I know was doing it.”

Next door neighbor Chris Chilton, one of the few people in Cornish that new Dieter by name and talked with him, said that Dieter kept an early 1980s Chevy “cargo van” in the driveway that he maintained in tip-top condition.

“It was the vehicle he went to the dump with. Every Saturday morning you knew Dieter was going to the dump because you’d hear the van fire up, the wheels squeal and it was off down the road to the dump he’d go,” Chilton related.

“He was always pawing through some little thing he could tinker on and turn around,” he said.

Dieter’s resourceful skills proved critical when Val, who died in 2007, was gravely ill with cancer.

She required an oxygen breathing device but when the tank apparatus wasn’t providing an adequate supply of oxygen, Dieter “went on eBay to buy the component from a jet engine, extract it, and used it to build a more purposeful oxygen tank,” Kozlowski said.

After Val died, Dieter left her downstairs bedroom untouched and moved her hospital bed and breathing apparatus into the loft, which place next to his own makeshift bed.

“Both he and Val were very strong-willed individuals,” Frank Seier, Dieter’s brother, said. “They stood up for what they believed in and lived the lives they wanted to live. Luckily there was enough overlap in their lives they could do those things together.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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