Deby Dihoff left Hanover College in 1973, armed with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and theology. Her education served as a springboard to a distinguished career of public service. Throughout that 40-year career, she provided mental health programs to clients and professionals alike in community health endeavors, culminating in a stint as executive director of National Alliance of Mental Illness North Carolina.
When she retired from that position in 2014, she was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, an honor bestowed by the governor of North Carolina to citizens who have made outstanding contributions to their communities. Other recipients? Maya Angelou, Andy Griffith, Michael Jordan, Richard Petty and Billy Graham.
But this prestigious award is not among the half-dozen topics that come up in conversation with the Chapel Hill, N.C., resident.
Instead, she is all about the work to which she dedicated her working life, and she is all about the friendships she has maintained since her college years.
She speaks effusively of crisis-intervention initiatives that helped law enforcement recognize and deal with people who have mental illness, using empathy and talking and listening skills to de-escalate fraught situations and to try to avoid arrests.
She remembers the values she learned and carried forward from her college years, about the “awesome professor” who “made me think about how to live the best possible life.”
She shares stories about “the Hanover Girls,” a small group of college friends that still see each other, and travel together, every year. Starting with the time they rented a van and drove from Indianapolis through South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho, all the way to Spokane, Wash.
She recalls the genesis of this “different level of friendship” -- how, shortly before graduation, they sat at night, serious and sad, talking about what life might be and might bring. Then they scattered. But five or 10 years out, she said, the core group of six to 10 "Hanover Girls" found each other again, and haven’t lost sight of each other since.
In looking back, Dihoff said all of that started with the cover of a Hanover catalogue she saw in her high school library. The photo showing the bend in the Ohio River spoke to her -- and so did the librarian, who knew the school and talked it up to her.
As one of six kids in her family, it also helped that Hanover offered her the most scholarship money. She accepted it, and has been giving back as a graduate donor since 1974. Citing her career in public service, she said with a smile in her voice, “I wish I had more money to give.”
For that career, Dihoff earned an award named for the long leaf pine, an evergreen that is an integral part of a life system that provides haven and shelter for other members of its community. She fills the same role in a college community that continues to thrive because of members like her.