The lives we've lost

Richard Diem

Richard Diem approached each day with a sense of purpose, always eager to expand his knowledge on myriad topics or tackle a new hobby. He had never been a contestant on “Jeopardy,” but if the opportunity had presented itself, he could have excelled on the quiz show, his family said.

“He had such a broad knowledge base on so many topics,” his oldest daughter, Stephanie Knief, said.

Mr. Diem, a Navy veteran who worked for the United States Department of Energy at Brookhaven National Lab, sought to instill that passion for knowledge in his three children. When they sat together for dinner — always in the same seats — he urged them to talk about whatever was on their mind, whether it be current events, history or science. He wanted his children to become deep thinkers. Family vacations included stops at museums more often than amusement parks. For the Diem children — Ms. Knief, 45; David Diem, 43; and Erika Diem, 41 — their father was the one who could fix anything. Plumbing problem? He could fix it. Electrical problem? He had it covered. Need something built? He could do it. 

“Whenever we had important or exciting decisions, or something really impactful, or even minor things, we would always trust Dad to give us his honest feedback and his guidance,” Erika Diem said. 

A native of South Jamesport, Mr. Diem died April 22 at Peconic Bay Medical Center due to complications from COVID-19. He was 73.

Mr. Diem was born in Greenport in 1947 and graduated from Riverhead High School in 1964. He attended the State University at Albany and then joined the Navy during the Vietnam War. He served aboard the USS Diachenko, a high-speed transport that was a converted destroyer from World War II.

He met his future wife, Pauline Stadnitschuk, at the former Cruiser Club in Hampton Bays in 1971. Ms. Diem recalled the precise day: Aug. 13. Four months later they were engaged. Another four months later, on April 16, 1972, they were married.

She was drawn to his wit, intelligence and sincerity, she said. And his “beautiful blue eyes.”

“It was love at first sight,” she said. “Can’t explain it any other way.”

They moved into a small bungalow in Eastport that dated from around the 1920s. They figured it would be temporary. But they kept working on the house and it became their permanent home where they raised their children. Mr. Diem had been a volunteer firefighter in Jamesport and then joined the Eastport Fire Department, which he served for 47 years, including as chief from 1983 to 1985.

We weren’t able to be with him, but modern technology helped us with that.

Pauline Diem

The couple’s first child was born in 1974 and Mr. Diem got a job as an apprentice lineman at the Long Island Lighting Company to earn a better paycheck to support his growing family. He later got a position as a nuclear reactor operator for the Shoreham nuclear power plant. When it appeared that plant would never become operational, he went back to Brookhaven National Lab, where he had previously worked, to begin a new role with the Department of Energy. He spent his career there in various positions.

One of his many passions was genealogy and tracing back his family’s long history on the North Fork. His genealogy work predated modern tools like DNA kits and He would go to public libraries, cemeteries and the Suffolk County Historical Society to piece together his family’s puzzle.

“He had traced back our genealogy really, really far back, to the 1600s,” Ms. Knief said. “The history goes way back on the North Fork and, of course, back to Europe.”

He found a relative who had served during the Revolutionary War.

Ms. Knief said her father hoped to give the family a sense of pride in where they came from and their heritage.

“I was really thankful he did that,” she said.

Another passion was astronomy. He would take his kids outside to point out different constellations. Even at family gatherings when his children were adults, he would gather everyone outside to look up at the passing International Space Station, for example.

“We would be in awe of my dad,” Erika Diem said.

During the day, if he happened to spot a bird he didn’t recognize, he’d grab an Audubon book to learn more. He was an avid golfer and enjoyed teaching the game to his 16-year-old grandson, Timmy. In retirement, he kept busy as a ranger for Hampton Hills Golf & Country Club in Westhampton Beach.

Mr. Diem had been dealing with back and wrist ailments recently, but it never slowed him down. The physical challenges wouldn’t keep him from enjoying the outdoors. He particularly took pride in his lawn and caring for the yard.

“He wanted to have his lawn like a carpet,” his wife said.

Ms. Diem said she had been feeling ill in late March before her husband became sick. At first she thought it might be related to medication she had been taking. It wasn’t until April 6 that she could be tested for the coronavirus and it came back positive. Her husband also tried to get tested but could not since he wasn’t yet symptomatic.

“It hit him out of the blue,” she said.

On April 11, his symptoms worsened. He thought he could be OK at home. But by April 15, Ms. Diem called 911 so he could be transported to PBMC. Three days later he was connected to a ventilator to assist his breathing. Four days later he died.

“It was very rapid,” said Ms. Diem, who has recovered from the virus. “The one thing we’re grateful for is that the hospital was able to FaceTime us.”

He tried to reassure his family that everything would be OK during those first few days when he could still communicate.

“That was, in my opinion, a true testament to his personality,” Erika Diem said.

After he was intubated, his family would FaceTime to tell him they loved him, even though he couldn’t respond. During his final moments, they were together as a family virtually.

“We weren’t able to be with him, but modern technology helped us with that,” Ms. Diem said.

They credited the staff at PBMC for their compassion as they assisted them.

Like so many other families dealing with tragedy during the past two months, the Diem family couldn’t hold a traditional funeral service. But Mr. Diem was given a touching send-off thanks to multiple fire departments that joined together April 25.

A procession for Richard Diem on April 25 drew several East End fire departments. (Courtesy photo)

The Eastport Fire Department arranged for Mr. Diem to be transported from the funeral home to the cemetery on its antique fire truck. The Westhampton Fire Department hung a large American flag and a procession featured vehicles from fire departments in Riverhead, Flanders, Manorville, East Moriches and East Quogue. The Suffolk County Sheriffs, Westhampton Beach Police Department and East Moriches Community Ambulance all participated as well.

Ms. Diem had told friends and acquaintances they could join the procession and drive past the cemetery where the immediate family would be at his grave. The family was shocked to see about 75 cars lined up.

“It was really very overwhelming the amount of support we had from our friends,” Ms. Knief said.

At the cemetery, the cars passed by the family slowly, so they could briefly acknowledge each other from a safe distance.

As a veteran and longtime firefighter, Mr. Diem had utmost respect for people in uniform, his family said. Anytime he would make a toast before dinner at a family gathering, he would point out a salute to the “men and women overseas fighting for our country.” 

Looking back at the tribute April 25, Ms. Diem said her husband would have been “humbled and honored.”