By John Halverson
Dianna Colman is full of surprises.
We’re in her bright, airy lake home she shares with her husband, Charles, and two black hunting dogs.
The burdens of philanthropy, fundraising and other good deeds, the latest being the resurrection of Yerkes Observatory, would weigh down most of us. Yet Dianna sits in a chair, hugging a pillow, looking surprisingly comfortable, with her lot, herself and the choices she’s made.
Her life has taken interesting and surprising twists and turns. And despite coming from humble beginnings, she’s Ivy League — a Harvard graduate no less. Her father, she explains, had just an eighth-grade education and her mother received her GED when Dianna was in high school.
The Colman home lies between Lake Geneva and Williams Bay. Dianna has one foot in each community — for years she was the “picture lady” at Central Dennison School in Lake Geneva, which involved showing works of art to kids and talking about both the art and the artist, and she helped raise money for the Town of Linn fireboat, one of her many fundraising projects.
Now she’s on to Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, the “birthplace of modern astrophysics” that’s been in limbo ever since it ceased activity as an observatory more than a year ago.
Dianna is president of the Yerkes Future Foundation, the organization trying to save it. Her involvement started in April 2018 when the University of Chicago indicated they were closing the observatory. The idea shocked area residents and a community meeting was held.
Chuck Ebeling, who chaired the meeting and serves as vice president of the Yerkes Future Foundation, recalls how Dianna was moved to action. “She called me and said ‘she’d been up all night’ worrying about the fate of the building.” Even though her plate was full of other projects, Dianna answered the call.
“She’s known as the best fundraiser for non-profits on the lake,” Ebeling says. “She’s a master at planning and an excellent negotiator.”
“It’s not going to be an overnight solution,” Dianna says of the Yerkes project. She acknowledges that work is needed on the structure, which was opened in 1897. “Our objective is to take something that everyone loves and respects and make it better,” she adds.
For over a year, the group has been negotiating with the University of Chicago, which owns the observatory, with the goal of acquiring it for the community. It’s a complex legal issue made more complex by the discovery of a document that indicates the observatory needs to revert to the Yerkes family if it ceases to be used for astronomical purposes.
“The family has been very open,” Dianna says, but until that snag gets resolved, fundraising has been temporarily halted.
Asked if the Yerkes project was a challenge, Dianna says, “I prefer the word tricky,” choosing a word filled with vibrancy instead of dread. “I love the process.”
“We recognize that this is a treasure. It’s iconic, it’s beautiful and has amazing potential,” she says. “But we have to own it. Ultimately, I think that will happen.”
Since the reclamation project started, her group has been approached by dozens of astronomers and scientists who want to take part. “I’ve been touched with all the people around the nation who want to help,” she says. “We owe it to the area first to save it. Then we owe it to the astronomers and scientists who have been talking to us.”
Dianna steeped herself in the legal logistics surrounding Yerkes, delving into the statutes governing such projects. “This entire thing has been an incredible learning experience,” she says. “There’ve been a lot of words I’ve had to look up.”
Are the politics daunting? “I don’t do politics,” she says. “I run into it and bounce off of it.”
Dianna has a vision for Yerkes that transcends the moment. “We could do exactly the same things and in four or five years no one would care.” The real question is, “How do we make it a destination?” she asks. Then she answers her own question. Dianna visualizes working with nearby George Williams College and making Yerkes a learning place where high school and university students can take extra classes, where seminars can be held, and to make it a haven where visiting scientists can talk to each other away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.
She has some advice for Lake Geneva residents who have a reclamation project of their own in the iconic Riviera, a former venue for big bands that’s fallen into disrepair. “Ask yourself how it’ll function for the next generation and the generation after that. Look at it in a more flexible way, retain the grace and the ambience. But look at what it could be, too. You’ll be better satisfied with the results.”
Dianna was born in Connecticut, grew up on the East Coast and claims she was “a pain in the neck as a teenager.” She came from a blue-collar environment, yet her parents insisted their children go to college. Dianna received her undergraduate degree in history — a subject that’s still close to her heart and a fixture in her home library — then attended Harvard Business School for a master’s degree in business. She was recruited by S.C. Johnson in 1978 with the hope of becoming a “career woman.”
“One week after I started working, I ran into Charles and thought ‘he’s so cute.’” They married in 1980.
After the couple had a daughter, Dianna became the business manager for The Prairie School in Wind Point, Wisconsin, a private college-prep school started by the S.C. Johnson family. Charles was transferred to Brazil where the family lived for three years. Dianna learned Portuguese and became business manager of a school in Rio de Janeiro. When the Colmans came back to the states, Dianna went back to The Prairie School for another five years.
Dianna’s involvement in the Geneva Lakes area started after the Colmans moved to their current home permanently, after several years of keeping it as a summer getaway. Dianna chose raising their daughter over work and wondered what else she should be doing with herself.
“I knew if all I did was sit alone in the house, I’d go crazy,” she said. “I wanted to figure out where I would fit in.”
A friend suggested Dianna take a look at Holiday Home Camp, which is close to the Colman home. Dianna did and she became chairperson of the camp, which fed a dual passion — children and education. During her tenure, Holiday Home tore down old cabins, built a health center and made other changes.
Dianna’s plate kept filling up as she volunteered at the Central Denison Library. “It was a time to clear my head and think of something other than grocery shopping as my next project,” she says.
More recently, she’s been involved with raising money for the Town of Linn fireboat, a similar project in Fontana, the Lake Geneva Garden Club and the Geneva Lake Association. “I’m also helping with the Melges-Rowe 2020 Olympic Campaign. “Those boys are working so hard for their goal,” she adds.
“I have to feel as if I am helpful and feel like I can be sincere and passionate,” she explains. “I can’t convince someone to do something if I don’t have my heart in it.”
Does she ever say no to a volunteer opportunity? “Yes, I do,” she says with a smile. “I tell them, no offense, but I’m busy.” No one can argue with that.
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE AREA
Dianna feels the Geneva Lakes area “is incredibly conducive to learning because people are relaxed. It’s just a wonderful place to be.”
As for hobbies, she and her husband are big readers. She’s currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on leadership. She likes mysteries and books in the Tom Clancy vein, too. They both also have a musical bent. The Colmans and another couple bought School of Rock in Williams Bay seven years ago and turned it into Rock Central, a non-profit for kids who are interested in music but can’t afford lessons. “Some of the kids have guitars bigger than they are,” Dianna says. “Our main job is to supply Kleenex to the parents when they watch their children perform.”
Their involvement led to the creation of an adult group, and now the Colmans perform in the area with ten other adult musicians; Charles plays guitar and she sings. Dianna and her sister are also big fans of NCAA basketball, including the Wisconsin Badgers. “I didn’t go to Wisconsin but I love watching them play,” Dianna says.
Her humble beginnings, her education, her reading and appreciation for history provide her with lessons for the present. Add in her work experience and Dianna has been able to parlay all these attributes in ways that allow her to relate to a wide spectrum of people.
“I keep asking myself,” she says, “How do I bring the men at the barber shop, people at Daddy Maxwell’s, the philanthropists around the lake and the scientists from NASA all together?”
The answer is self-evident.