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Just the facts, please

  • Al Dietz
    Al Dietz
Published February 22. 2014 09:00AM

For the first time in 72 years, there's a story about the busy man behind the familiar name.

Veteran newsman Al Dietz, behind-the-scenes court reporter on the Schuylkill County beat, spoke this week about highlights of his legendary career.

That development, in itself, is news.

Dietz, 92, has turned down interview requests for decades, and in no uncertain terms.

"I don't make news. I cover it," said the courthouse news courier whenever asked for an interview.

But Dietz, recuperating at his Pottsville home following hospitalization, finally took time last week to provide the TIMES NEWS with insight into his remarkable career.

"I started as a cub reporter in 1942," he said.

But it wasn't his first choice.

He intended to enter the military, "but the service turned me down due to an arthritic knee."

Dietz, a 1939 graduate of Pottsville High School, was trained by writers Herrwood Hobbs and Daniel Bergen, who guided him through the intricacies of daily news reporting.

"It was like going to college," he said.

Working with news veterans helped to launch Dietz's career on the right foot, he said.

"I was at the Pottsville Journal for 12 years. Then they were bought out by the Pottsville Republican. I almost didn't make it."


Well, Dietz made an impromptu remark to Joseph H. Zerbey IV, general manager, which almost cost him a job.

"I said 'Joe, you didn't need to buy the paper to get me.'"

Zerbey thought about it, and responded, "I like your confidence."

With that, Dietz was hired and it was full speed ahead. He went on to tackle general news assignments and polished his skills in all areas of reporting.

Home and career

At the same time, Dietz's personal life blossomed.

In 1954, he married G. Adelaide Picus, niece of major league baseball legend Jack Picus Quinn. The couple became parents of a son, Franklin, daughter, Barbara Anne, and eventually, four grandchildren and six great-grandsons.

On the job, Dietz turned toward specialization. In 1960, he accepted a newly created position as court reporter for four newspapers simultaneously: the Tamaqua Evening Courier, Mahanoy City Record American, Ashland News and Shenandoah Evening Herald.

After mergers, acquisitions and other changes among the dailies, Dietz settled in at the TIMES NEWS, which had acquired the Tamaqua Courier in the early 1970s.

Today, Dietz gathers and reports details such as marriage licenses, divorces and deeds. He also sits in and reports on civil and criminal hearings.

News outlets recognize the court beat as vital to keeping the public informed. As a result, Dietz plays a pivotal role in the public's right to know.

For example, he routinely covers weekly commissioners' meetings, monthly planning sessions, zoning hearing board gatherings and meetings of the retirement and prison boards.

Big stories

The newspaper career has granted Dietz access to proceedings and testimony in the region's most sensational criminal cases.

"I covered the Lillian Reis Trial in the 1960s," he recalled. "She had brought up gangsters from Philadelphia and (allegedly) robbed a coal baron."

The Reis trial was a cause célèbre, perhaps the most famous trial ever held in Schuylkill County.

Known as Tiger Lil, the colorful former showgirl and club owner was implicated in a 1959 robbery. Police had fingered her as a mastermind of the burglary at John B. Rich's home, in which, police said at the time, about $478,000 in cash was taken from a basement safe.

"It was tried twice and resulted in hung juries both times," said Dietz.

People were hanging on every word.

At one point Reis was convicted. But she appealed, and in 1970, the charges were dropped.

Dietz's coverage of the Tiger Lil case was so compelling it appeared internationally, including being featured in Der Spiegel, Germany's weekly newsmagazine.

He also covered local visits by three U.S. presidents, Truman, Kennedy and Nixon.

When asked to reflect on the most difficult part of the job, Dietz had a fast response.

He said one of the toughest aspects took place during the war years when deaths took a toll at home.

"During World War II, I'd go to the home to get information. One mother threw me out of the house. She didn't want to talk about it and I can understand."

The same situation presented itself when Dietz covered mine accidents, he said.

"I'd go to the home to get details or information. That was the hardest part of the job."

Personal loss takes a toll, and Dietz, himself, deals with it daily.

Last October, wife Adelaide passed away after 59 years of marriage. She was 84.

"It created quite a void in my life," he said.

Dietz is humble, yet proud to pursue the role of consummate reporter from the "old school" of journalism.

He understands a need for compassion. But most importantly, he emphasizes the necessity of solid facts. Reporters must demonstrate good, old-fashioned commitment to facts. That's what "old school" journalism is all about.

"I don't like when reporters interject their own personal opinions," he said.

"Just give the facts. Let the people decide."

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