Joe Diblin’s friends remembered him Thursday as the consummate gentleman and storyteller. Diblin was a pilot, veteran, writer, teacher and historian and so much more. He died on Thursday morning at 103.
“I’m not sure I ever met anyone who was his equal,” said longtime friend Al Hess.
State Representative Lynda Schlegel Culver had regular lunch dates with Diblin and Barb Spaventa, something she said she missed over the past year when COVID hit and limited their interactions. Diblin had contracted COVID in recent weeks.
"Spending time with Joe was like living history," she said. "It's hard to believe some of the things he said and remembered. He was such a gentleman, so kind and generous. He was really a pure heart."
Diblin knew history because he lived it. As a teen, he hitchhiked from his home in Hightstown, New Jersey, to a military base in Lakehurst on May 6, 1937. He was there the day Hindenburg burst into flames killing 36 people.
Diblin joined the Air Force right out of Bucknell and went into pilot training in 1941. He spent most of the war as a flight instructor and Hess said the fact that he did not serve in the European or Pacific theaters in WWII bothered him.
"For the longest time, he never wanted to consider himself a veteran because he never went overseas," Hess said. "But he did such a magnificent job telling the stories of everybody who did."
His Sunday columns in The Daily Item have been a staple for years. He never wanted to repeat the stories of Valley veterans, wanting to always tell a new one each time.
"Joe was a people-person, which is how he got so many stories," said Diblin's friend Betty Cook, who was Diblin's student at Lewisburg after the war. "Everybody loved the articles that he would run every week. He had copies of all those articles for 40 years in scrapbooks. When he got tired or sick, we asked him why not run one of the old ones, for a new generation. He'd never do it."
Flying and storytelling were the things that bonded Diblin and Dave Hall.
The two met when Hall operated Penn Valley Airport in Selinsgrove. Hall said Thursday he invited Diblin to a couple of functions and the two became good friends.
"The two things he loved in this world were flying and women," Hall said with a chuckle. "If I went over to visit him and didn't take my wife, Karen, he'd raise holy hell."
Hall brought Diblin in to speak to pilots all the time — he called Diblin a "pilot's pilot" who paved the way for others — and said that while Diblin's columns were tremendous, "when you heard him in person, it was absolutely magnificent. We had him in Williamsport one time. He talked for an hour and we couldn't get him off the stage."
Talking and storytelling were his specialties, his friends said Thursday.
Hall said he was with Diblin a few years ago when Diblin was in the hospital after breaking his neck. Hall said doctors were talking to Diblin, who was intubated at the time, about limiting his speaking when the tube was removed.
"They told him, 'Joe, you can't talk for four hours. He lasted four minutes,'" Hall said with a laugh."
"He was an incredible person. I was jealous of his mind," said Culver. "We could all learn a lot from Joe Diblin."