Longtime Juneau resident and civic participant Kay Diebels died Friday afternoon at Bartlett Regional Hospital. She was 82.
“She really cared about Juneau,” said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau. “She was a great lady and really worked her butt off for the city she loved.”
Diebels was born July 21, 1933 in Massachusetts, but spent her entire childhood and young adult life in Stephens Point, Wisconsin. She went to Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, the sister school of the University of Notre Dame.
In 1954, she married Bill Diebels Sr., a lieutenant and pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps. The two, along with their four kids, moved to Juneau in 1964.
“After service, my father wanted an adventure, so they decided to come to Alaska for two years so he could get it out of his system,” her daughter, Liza Diebels Paramore, said Tuesday by phone.
Like so many stories of people moving to Alaska, two years turned into many, many more.
“They just fell in love with Juneau and they never looked back,” Paramore said.
Bill Diebels Sr. originally came to Juneau to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and traveled all over Southeast Alaska. He went on to work for health entities and was a career social worker.
Paramore said besides raising four kids, her mother threw herself into civic engagement.
Diebels was a founding member and president of the League of Women Voters of Juneau in the 1960s. She served on the Juneau Planning Commission for several years in the 1970s as a member and chair. She also chaired the Alaska Salary Commission, now known as the State Officers Compensation Commission. In 1982, she was elected to the Juneau Assembly for a one-year term, and again in 1983 for a two-year term.
Growing up, Paramore said part of her and her siblings’ every day life was watching their mother work.
“It was a little bit of a surprise to me to realize that other people’s homes were not necessarily going to contain a dining room table with seven or eight piles of carefully arranged notes for the next meeting,” she said.
Paramore got used to people commenting on her mom when they realized she was Diebels’ daughter.
“People have said to me over and over when they hear my name, ‘She was really one of the good ones. She operated with absolute integrity. She had no agenda. She’s just someone who really cared about Juneau and wanted to make it better,’” Paramore said.
Former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho served with Diebels on the Assembly.
“Kay was the most prepared assembly member in my time on the Assembly, which spanned a total of 15 years,” he said Monday by phone. “Kay was the best, she was the model to emulate.”
He said Diebels was particularly good at land use planning and the budget.
“She was frequently the person who would say, ‘Before we go this way,’ or, ‘Now, wait a minute,’” Botelho said. It was that pause for reflection, he said, that would add additional improvement to decisions being made.
“Her fundamental orientation was good government, making sure it was transparent and there was opportunity for the public to be heard. That was a message that was core to her and also reflected in her very active leadership in the League of Women Voters,” Botelho said.
More recently, he and Diebels worked together on city’s bronze whale project.
“To her last breath she was working on the whale project, something she became involved with at its inception,”Botelho said.
Margorie Menzi said Diebel’s death is a loss to the community. Menzi has been involved with the League of Women Voters for 40 years and serves as chairwoman of the statewide election committee. She called Diebels a “very diligent member.”
The two also served together on Planning Commission in the late 1970s.
“Kay was wonderfully conscientious and always had excellent questions and insights,” Menzi said. “She was very easy to get along with. I think everyone loved Kay.”
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said she admired Diebels and had a close connection with her.
Muñoz served on the Assembly after Diebels but the two worked closely in the late 1990s opposing a ballot measure to build a new high school in the Mendenhall Valley and turn Juneau–Douglas High School into a ninth grade center.
“We formed a group called, ‘It’s okay to say no,’ or, ‘It’s okay to vote no,’ because it’s always politically risky to vote against a school project. We worked and we organized a group of people. She had a lot of great energy. She was such a smart, capable leader. I really learned a lot from my experiences with her,” Muñoz said Tuesday.
She said Diebels was one of the leaders around the Kaxdigoowu Heen Dei trail that starts at the Brotherhood Bridge.
“She helped acquire the parcels along the river to create a continuous trail right-of-way through the Mendenhall Valley,” Muñoz said. “She was very instrumental in that project, which has lasting impact and will for generations to come.”
She said Diebels had skills in empowering others to get involved.
Sen. Egan, former radio broadcaster and personality for Alaska-Juneau Communications, can attest to that. He used to host KINY-AM’s “Problem Corner.”
“Kay said, ‘Quit complaining, start participating. If you want to complain, get involved,’” Egan said.
He said Diebels was one of the people to convince him to run for Planning Commission, “and, lo and behold, I was appointed.”
Years later, Egan said she also persuaded him to donate money to the whale project.
“She becomes involved in stuff and when she becomes involved, watch out, because she’s going to nail you, like she nailed me,” he said. “But I got a nice card from her that said, ‘Thanks for your kind donation.’ I still have it.”
Diebels had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and died from complications with pneumonia, her daughter said. Paramore said her mother passed away surrounded by family.
Diebels leaves behind a husband, Bill Diebels Sr.; four children, Bill Diebels Jr., Paramore, Dan Diebels and Paul Diebels; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service for Kay Diebels will be held at 3 p.m. June 7 at St Paul’s Catholic Church, with a reception to follow.