Retired Virginia Beach Fire Chief and City Councilman, Harry E. Diezel, passed away peacefully at his home, January 9, 2019. Harry was born on January 10, 1940, in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Northern Virginia where he graduated from Falls Church High School in 1958. He entered the Army in 1960, and served in the 82nd Airborne in South Korea. Upon return, he entered college to study law, but the lifelong attraction for firefighting resulted in pursuit of his chosen profession. He became a professional firefighter in Fairfax County in 1966, and rose to the rank of lieutenant before interviewing for the position as Fire Chief for the City of Virginia Beach. On May 1, 1974, he assumed command of the Virginia Beach Fire Department, where he served until retirement in 1997. Harry enjoyed several years out of the public eye, during which time he worked at Stumpy Lake Golf Course. A vacancy on City Council for the Kempsville District presented an opportunity for further public service, and in 2002, he was unanimously appointed to the seat, and won two successful re-elections before retiring in 2012. He returned to his love of golf by working at the Kempsville Golf Course for several years.
During Harry’s career, he was instrumental in securing passage of the state heart/lung presumption in 1976. This presumption is designed to assist police, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency first responders in surmounting the difficulties they may meet in proving their diagnosed hypertension, heart disease, lung disease, or lung conditions are related to their employment.
Harry networked nationwide to share ideas to improve fire departments, through the group the Baggers, which he began with retired Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini (deceased). Innovation was key in the group’s informal meetings which focused on challenging existing conditions with new ideas. Fire chiefs and staff from across the country met periodically for no holds barred brainstorming sessions which helped to broaden the scope of modern firefighting.
One of Harry’s first objectives when coming to Virginia Beach was to secure funds for a fire service training facility. He believed that information is key to professionalism, and training solidifies that information into action. In 1975, he began the financial drive on both the state and local level, which resulted in a 10,000 square – foot facility which today serves firefighters regionally, as well as nationally. Harry supported the development and funding for the City’s Urban Search and Rescue Team, which paved the way for the City-led FEMA Team , known as Virginia Task Force 2. The training center which now bears his name has hosted and trained our team as well as those from across the United States.
Harry’s arrival in Virginia Beach was not met with many open arms, but because of his integrity, his honesty, his compassion, his professionalism, and his courage, he gained the love and the respect from the community. Always a forward thinker, he hired the first African American, the first woman, the first Native American, and the first Asian American. What began as a department of 120 firefighters is today nearly 500 strong. His philosophy was that his firefighters worked WITH him and not FOR him – a concept which he believed was essential for mutual respect.
When Harry took his seat on City Council, he became the quiet one. He listened more than he spoke. He preferred to sit off camera, because he shunned the spotlight, and as the years went by, his seniority meant his chair would move closer to the center. He rejected that notion, because he wanted to remain seated next to the City Attorney. “I learn a lot right here”, he would say. More than learning, what he brought to the office was depth. He understood the inner workings of local and state governments, having served on state commissions during his tenure as Fire Chief. He brought his concern for the safety of the community to the eyes and ears of those who may not have been aware of need. He chose to discuss, rather than to argue. He chose to explain, rather than to lecture.
Harry is survived by Ginny,his wife of 54 years, his son Matthew and daughter-in-law Joan , grand dogs Grayson and Kenzie, brothers Fred Diezel and Nick Katsarelis, sisters Cynthia and Sue Katsarelis. and many nieces and nephews. Harry did not want a funeral. The family will have an open house for friends and colleagues at the Harry E. Diezel Virginia Beach Fire Training Center on January 18, 2019, from 1 pm until 4 pm. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Southeastern Virginia Food Bank, 800 Tidewater Drive, Norfolk, VA 23504.