West Chester Mayor Dianne Herrin spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Drexel Hill, the lessons she learned working at Burger King in Broomall and a Chevrolet dealership in Newtown Square, why she chose to attend Widener University, meeting her future husband at one of her first jobs after college, and what drew her and her husband to settle in West Chester.
Herrin also discussed how she got into politics, what has surprised her after being in office for a year, and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for the borough.
Where were you born and where did you grow up, Dianne?
I was born as the youngest of four children at Delaware County Memorial Hospital in Drexel Hill and spent the majority of my youth in the St. Andrews Parish section of Drexel Hill.
What did your parents do?
My father did a lot of things. He was an engineer by trade, as well as an inventor. He invented a device that measured liquid levels in the large circular oil storage tanks you see down by the Philadelphia Airport.
He would write on our dinner napkins while we ate together, he would tinker with inventions in the basement at night, and he often put nasty smelling experimental things in the freezer, along with the food. It’s a wonder my siblings and are I all still around to talk about it! On top of this, he owned a real estate business.
My mother managed his offices for these different ventures, and she also cooked, cleaned, and otherwise took care of the family.
What memories do you have growing up in Drexel Hill?
We played outside until our parents would ring the dinner bell out on the front porch. There were a lot of children in my neighborhood, and I remember so clearly those summer nights playing outside in the streets, running through the neighbors’ yards. It was truly valuable to have those experiences as a child.
Did you play any sports growing up?
I was not much of an athlete, but I did start running on my own after graduating from high school. I loved being outside, so I would participate in 5Ks and 10Ks often. I think running is very good for mental health, although now I walk and hike rather than run.
What kind of music were you listening to?
Oh gosh, rock-and-roll. What else!? I wore out the grooves on my Bruce Springsteen albums and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” album. I liked Peter Frampton, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin, Boston, Joni Mitchell, and all of the music that was so popular when I was in high school in the late 70s.
What were some of the jobs you had when you were younger?
In 11th grade, my family moved to Springfield, and I finished my schooling at Marple Newtown High School. I worked at the Burger King in Broomall. It did not last long, though! Do you remember the commercials where they showed their char-broiled burgers cooking over an open flame? Well, I thought they were fully cooked on the flame broiler, but I misunderstood. The burgers were only briefly scorched on the broiler so they would turn brown, but they needed to be cooked in the microwave. I was fired in part because angry customers kept returning their undercooked burgers and complaining. That’s when I began to understand the power of advertising – not to mention the importance of listening when you’re being trained for a new job!
After my Burger King experience, I landed a job at the Kirk Chevrolet dealership in Newtown Square. I was the cashier in the parts department, and I’m happy to report this job lasted much longer.
What lessons did you take from those jobs that stay with you today?
I learned a solid work ethic from these jobs, and from my parents as well. Looking back, I saw my mother managing my father’s office, as well as a household with four children. We had a clean house, and dinner on the table every night. Frankly, I don’t know how she did it. I still carry with me the work ethic I learned early in life.
Where did you go to college, Dianne?
I went to Widener University and studied English literature. I wanted an intimate setting, and I enjoyed the small classroom environment. During most of my college education, I worked full-time during the day and earned my degree at night. It took me about seven years.
How did you get to where you are today?
After I graduated, I spent some time in technical research/editing. I worked at Chilton Publishing Company in Radnor, where I met my husband. Ultimately, I took a job as a technical writer for Synthes (USA), based at the time in Paoli. I was promoted within Synthes to the product development/product management department, and I enjoyed it greatly. I was able to work directly with the products and our team of engineers, and I traveled to trauma hospitals across the country working with orthopaedic surgeons on new product development. I loved it.
My husband and I decided to have a family after more than ten years of marriage. I was thirty-six when our first son was born and nearly forty when we had our second son. We were living in Honeybrook at the time and wanted to live in a more diverse, walkable community with good public schools, so we moved to West Chester. That was 18 years ago.
Becoming a mother motivated me to become engaged in our community. I wanted to do what I could to help strengthen and improve West Chester for the sake of all children. One of the first things I did was to start a group called “Moms for the Future.” We were pretty forward-thinking mothers and we wanted to use our skills, passion and brains to make a difference in the community. We went to school board meetings and advocated pretty successfully for green, sustainable schools.
As my children got older, I began volunteering for the Borough. I started the Borough’s first environmental committee, which provided guidance to Borough Council members on decisions about our environment and led a successful effort to reduce Borough-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 10%.
That’s when I met Paul Spiegel, a local energy efficiency expert who owns a West Chester-based commercial energy management consulting company called Practical Energy Solutions. Paul wanted to perform energy audits of the Borough’s operations, and our committee vetted his proposal. I ended up working with Paul professionally, and I have worked with him for the past ten years. I actively sought training in energy management so I could be well-versed in the technical end of the firm’s work, and I now hold two energy certifications and am Vice President of the company.
Who along the way saw something in you and propelled you?
Former Mayor and now-state representative Carolyn Comitta encouraged me to run for Mayor when she was preparing to leave the mayoral office. Carolyn felt I had the commitment and temperament to be a good mayor. I love the Borough, and I knew how local government worked. She has been very supportive, and I’m grateful for that.
Did you want to be in politics?
During my volunteer time at the Borough, I became increasingly aware of how important our local elected officials are. They make decisions daily that significantly impact our lives and checkbooks. I also saw that we have to protect our democracy at every level, and we need to contribute to society as much as we can if we want our communities to reflect our values. For these reasons, I’m more fascinated with politics than ever.
A little over a year into the job as Mayor, what has surprised you?
One of my primary roles as Mayor is to be the civilian head of our 44-member police force. I have learned so much in this role, and I have been surprised by how challenging it is to be a police officer. Our officers face difficult situations routinely, yet they are disciplined and have a good perspective on their jobs and on this community. I am genuinely impressed with Chief Bohn’s leadership and am proud of these men and women.
I have also been pleasantly surprised by the level of commitment the people who live and work here have to our community. I’m inspired by the way people give of their time, expertise and money for everything from creating our Uptown! theater and growing the local arts scene, to feeding the homeless, providing housing for families in need, providing pre-K to children in need, serving the immigrant community, and even cleaning up our town! Our greatest asset is our human capital.
Looking forward, what are the challenges and opportunities you’re facing?
I still have a great passion for the environment. Our Borough Council passed a resolution to go 100% clean, renewable electricity by 2035. We have taken this initiative to the member municipalities of the West Chester Council of Governments, and almost all signed on. We put a joint RFP out on the street and selected an energy planner to design an actionable, viable plan for our entire region to achieve this goal. It’s very exciting not only in terms of the environmental benefits this brings, but in terms of the opportunities for workforce training and creation of labor jobs. It’s a heavy lift but we will do it.
I’m also excited about a new initiative to clean up our town. On April 27th, we had a community-wide sidewalk clean-up day. We had more than 200 representatives from local churches, leaders from West Chester’s law firms, Scouts, West Chester University students and administration, Rotarians, and many, many residents. The energy was so high, and people were thrilled to participate. As part of the initiative, we also have a new gum removal machine that we will be using to make the town cleaner. It’s important for us to take pride in our community, because this breeds success.
Finally, I’m also hoping to work with our Borough Council President to develop an Affordable Housing Task Force for West Chester.
West Chester has several projects happening downtown. Which are you most excited about?
I think I am most excited for the new Mosteller Building to be completed, because this development at the corner of Church and Gay Streets will have a plaza with a fountain, which anyone can enjoy as long as we respect it. I love the idea of having more public spaces in the center of town.
I’m also excited that Align.space recently moved into the newly-renovated F&M Building. Although West Chester is doing great, we can never rest on our laurels. When I think about what we need to do to keep West Chester vital into the future, I think about this venture. It is a shared workspace for entrepreneurs that takes advantage of the young talent emerging from West Chester University, and from the region. It is housed in one of our most important historic buildings, which has been brilliantly renovated. It is the perfect way to move into the future while retaining our history. As my friend Jim Salvas likes to say, our history is our brand here in the Borough, so we must preserve it. Who knows what great ideas will incubate there!
What do you do in your free time?
I am a photographer, and I consider photography my “therapy.” I greatly enjoy taking pictures of the Borough. I also keep up on the news by reading as much as I can. I walk and work out routinely, and I kayak whenever I get the opportunity.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My father told me, “I owe you one thing – and that’s to teach you how to be independent.” That had a huge impact on me and taught me how to stand on my own.
Later, I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I’m not a big fan of self-help books, but one thing Covey emphasized was that the real achievement of life is not independence, but interdependence. That was impactful for me, and it took me beyond my father’s philosophy. When I look at our community, this is what I strive for: Interdependence. We must feel free to rely on each other when we need to, to care for one another, and lift each other up. It is at the core of what “community” means to me.
Together, we can continue to protect what we have and create what we need – A strong, caring, and successful community that we call home.
Publisher’s note: Laura Wagoner contributed to this Chester County Leadership profile.