Mention the name Dianne Wickersham to somebody my age, and you’ll probably get the same response — “Who?”
But ask anyone of, say, my mom’s age or older (and I won’t say how old that is Mom), who was in Covington 50 years ago and it’s a name that harkens back memories that are as fresh today as they were then.
In my 15 years of on-and-off employment with The Virginian Review, I’ve written on many subjects.
Most of my stories have come pretty easy; some stories, not so much.
My work on the Dianne Wickersham murder case has been at least 10 years in the writing; so it’s fair to say this has been one of those stories you could list in the “Not So Much” category.
During that time, I’ve periodically gone to my file cabinet and pulled out Dianne’s now-tattered file folder and began to look at her life — and death — again.
Inevitably, I’d get distracted by something or someone else and, eventually, I would put it back in the cabinet, saying, “I’ll come back to it later.”
Maybe that kind of attitude is why this nearly 50-year-old murder remains unsolved.
By the time I began in earnest late last year putting my thoughts and findings into some semblance of a story, it had been a decade of on-and-off research and investigation.
I’ve chased down leads, scoured through yellowing pages and investigated many characters that make up this complex story.
I’ve tried, as the saying goes, to leave no stone unturned.
As a dog chasing its tail, though, I kept coming back to the beginning; and it’s there that I really began to look at what happened beginning Labor Day weekend 1965.
You may not agree with my conclusions, and that’s OK.
Someone reading this may have a completely different ending to this tale.
That’s OK, too.
This is my column, not yours.
What I’ve attempted at each juncture in this process is to keep in mind a simple reality — this is a tragic story of the murder of an innocent young woman, who’s remembered more a half-century after her death for how she died rather than for who she was.
Now it’s my chance to put Dianne Wickersham “In the Spotlight” — the good, the bad and the downright bizarre.
There are a lot of facts in this case.
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of conjecture and hearsay.
This has been a fairly arduous case, in which I’ve had to glean out the facts, comb through the conjecture and attempt to confirm or deny pages and pages of rumors that I’ve gathered during my years of research.
If nothing else comes out of this, maybe my research into Dianne’s life, and death, will spur a new investigation into her murder.
Seeing as many of the individuals involved in this case are either dead or aren’t talking, and most of the police files have been either lost or destroyed, I did the next best thing — I dug deep into the massive archives, the “Morgue” as we call it, here at The Virginian Review.
Kind of fitting, huh? Doing research on a murder in a morgue?
Well, maybe the irony is reserved only for me.
But I digress.
Fortunately for me, my predecessor as city editor here at The Virginian, Bill Lumpkin, was the reporter who covered most, if not all, of what transpired following Dianne’s disappearance on Labor Day Sunday, 1965.
For those of you who know Bill, you know that there wasn’t a detail he left unmentioned in any of his stories. This is a huge win for me, as Bill left me a treasure-trove of material on the Dianne Wickersham case for which to begin my investigation.
When Bill retired in 2000, he said that the Dianne Wickersham murder case was one of the most significant topics he covered during his career.
After diving into this case, I can see why.
Here’s what we know (with a few of my own thoughts interspersed as we go along):
Dianne Brewster Wickersham was born on October 20, 1942 in Decatur, Ga.
She was a 1964 graduate of the University of Georgia and was to begin her second year as an elementary music teacher in the Covington School System in the fall of 1965.
According to reports after her disappearance, Dianne had told her friends that she had spent the previous summer with her grandparents in Washington, Ga., riding a horse she had recently bought. Dianne was said to be a very good horsewoman and had talked about bringing her horse to Covington.
She was last seen at approximately 10 p.m. on Sunday, September 5, leaving the room she rented at the Collins Hotel.
Jeanne Arnold, who lived in a room adjoining Dianne’s at the Collins, was the last known person to see Dianne alive.
(In December 1964, Dianne had approached the superintendent of the Alleghany County School System, Walter Hodnett, to recommend Arnold, a college friend and a fellow Georgia native, to be hired as a county band and music teacher.
Arnold was hired and began after the Christmas holidays that year.)
After Dianne had been reported missing, Arnold told police she was watching television in the Collins’ second-floor lobby when Dianne passed the doorway at about 10 p.m. that Sunday night.
Dianne, Arnold said, made a “gesture of recognition” and walked on without speaking. Arnold said she “appeared to be upset emotionally” when she last saw her, saying she was going for a Coke.
It’s not clear from the reports, so I’m not sure if by “gesture of recognition” she meant a head nod or a smile or what have you.
Arnold told police that, following Dianne’s failure to return to her room, she “thought she’d just taken off for a few days’ vacation,” although Dianne was set to begin school the following Tuesday. Arnold was able to tell the police, however, that Dianne was carrying only a pocketbook, which contained “about $5 or $10.”
Arnold described their relationship as that of “good friends,” but not close enough to “confide troubles” in each other. She said Dianne read a lot and stayed in her room most of the time. She did not date much, Arnold said.
They were not close enough to confide troubles in each other but Arnold knew how much money Dianne had in her purse? I can guarantee you that if someone knows what I’m carrying in my wallet, he or she had better be The Wife or a darn good friend.
Arnold told police that Dianne had left that night to park her 1965 Corvair Monza at the private garage she rented to store it, which was a couple of blocks down Maple, behind what is now Peebles.
I remember my mom telling me that you could see the garage where she parked her car from the window of the apartment she and Pop rented in the People’s Bank Building.
At the time, the garage was owned by T.C. Hodges. It was located behind the building which housed Dr. Gary Hodges’ optometry office.
Sadly, Dianne’s whereabouts did not become a concern for anyone until Tuesday, September 7 (two days later), when, at 4:20 p.m., Covington school Superintendent Ray Beazley called the police after he received a report, at 9:25 that morning, that she had not appeared for her 9 a.m. music class at Rivermont Elementary School.
Rivermont Principal Harriet Thompson told Beazley that Dianne had failed to appear for a scheduled class, leading Beazley to call her father, Army Col. Clarence Wickersham down in Georgia, shortly after notifying the police. Col. Wickersham arrived in Covington by plane later that night.
Principal Thompson, in an interview conducted by Bill Lumpkin for The Covington Virginian (we didn’t become The Virginian Review until 1989), said Dianne was scheduled to conduct band lessons at Rivermont at 9 on Tuesday morning and, when students reported that she had not showed up for class, she began trying to find Dianne herself.
When she found that Dianne was not in the school building, she said, she called the Jeter School, since Dianne was supposed to notify the Jeter School office if she were ill or unable to show up for class. She said she notified Beazley at 9:25 a.m. that Dianne was nowhere to be found.
So let’s review what we know so far:
Dianne leaves the Collins Hotel at 10 p.m. on Sunday. Her “good friend” Jeanne Arnold sees her carrying only her purse, which contains $10 or less.
Arnold said Dianne was going for a soda, but she thinks Dianne may be going off on some vacation for a few days, and she knew that Dianne was going to park her car down the street.
If she was going down to park her car, how was she going to travel?
She got all that from a “gesture of recognition?”
Wow, I’ve been gestured many, many times before (usually by what I like to call the “fickle finger”), but that really must have been some gesture.
Answer me this — Who up and leaves, without luggage (i.e. a change of underwear) and money (I mean, you have to buy food along the way), to go buy a Coke and out-of-the-blue decides to zip off for a vacation at 10 at night only 31 hours before going back to work?
Common sense often eludes me, but even I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
And why, if Beazley was going to take the initiative to report her missing, if he knew she had not appeared for school by 9:25 on Tuesday morning, did he wait seven hours to report her disappearance to police and to, then, notify Dianne’s father?
OK, let’s go back to the story.
Col. Wickersham arrives in town, maybe arriving at the Bath County airport late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.
I couldn’t find out which airport he arrived at.
If it was, in fact, the Bath County airport, well, you’ll see the irony of that later on in Part 2.
Talking with Bill Lumpkin, the elder Wickersham said he had no idea where his daughter was and that she had not been in contact with her grandparents.
Maybe the good colonel checked with her grandparents on the off chance Dianne had gone to park her car, get that Coke and had an urge to go to Georgia to see her prized horse.
While in Covington, he had several conversations with Jeanne Arnold, who he said was “very upset.”
He talked with local police officers, who he called “very nice and cooperative.”
And, he said he wished his “daughter’s failure to return to her room had been reported sooner.”
Yeah, that might have helped.
I guess that’s all the colonel needed to hear, because he was leaving on a jet plane that Thursday (September 9), even before he learned what had happened to his daughter.
About all the police had to go on was a report called in to police that Monday (Labor Day, September 6th) of a “strange reflection” on the side of Warm Springs Mountain, which was called in by two fellows from Carloover.
Alas, for whatever reason, the lead was not followed up on, and it would take another 13 days for Dianne’s grisly fate to finally be revealed.
Next time, we’ll look into the discovery of Dianne Wickersham’s body and the investigation into her murder.
Do you have someone you’d like for me to put “In the Spotlight?”
If so, write me at:
David S. Crosier
The Virginian Review
P.O. Box 271
Covington, Va. 24426
Or e-mail me at: