When Dianne Debeixedon came to Old Dominion University, she didn't expect to be here very long.
She had just received her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Georgia, and the start of the fall semester at ODU was looming. The Art Department in the College of Arts and Letters had an opening it was trying to fill quickly.
"The department was pretty young," she recalled. "But I kind of liked the idea of building the department. I took the job, thinking that I would keep it for a few years and then move on."
That was in 1974. Debeixedon is now leaving the University - after 46 years - with her retirement, effective Jan. 1.
"Dianne has been a deeply devoted leader and faculty member during her more than four decades at ODU," Arts and Letters Dean Kent Sandstrom said. "She has played a key role in shaping the foundations and directions of the Art Department, and we are grateful for her many contributions. We especially appreciate her passion for teaching and her dedication to mentoring students."
Debeixedon, an associate professor, has enjoyed a varied career at ODU. She taught and specialized in metalsmithing, but is also skilled at working with dolls and making dresses for them, many of which are on display at the Barry Art Museum.
She started as a drawing and painting major at Southern Illinois University. During her junior year, she had to take several craft components classes, one of which was metalsmithing.
"I thought that I would like metalsmithing the least, so I took that last," she said. "I was in the middle of the class one day in the middle of the semester and I thought, 'This is it. I'd rather do this than paint.'"
She switched majors and eventually earned an M.F.A. in metalsmithing and jewelry from Georgia. Debeixedon, who once took a sabbatical to go to England to learn how to make metalsmithing tools, was a rarity in the field.
"When I joined the Tidewater Blacksmiths Guild, I was the only woman for many, many years," she said.
Debeixedon's skills came in handy when the University Seal on Kaufman Mall was badly damaged by weather a number of years ago. A freeze and thaw caused it to buckle to the point where "it kind of looked like a potato chip," she said. When workers straightened it out, they burned off the finish, turning it black. She was able to restore the proper patina in about two weeks.
"Everyone who crosses the seal at commencement has reason to thank Dianne - it being just one of her myriad contributions to making Old Dominion University a better place," said Robert Wojtowicz, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School.
It might seem like a stretch to go from working with metal to working on delicate and historically accurate dolls, but not as much as you might think.
"I use all my sculptural and art background in repairing them," she said. "The dolls' heads are porcelain; many of the parts in them are metal. The bodies are a wood composition, and often they have damage. And so I have to be able to sculpt back a missing finger or a damaged foot."
Debeixedon's grandmother, an accomplished professional seamstress in New York City, got her interested in collecting and restoring dolls and costuming (Debeixedon minored in linens at Southern Illinois and created the linen program at ODU).
She met Carolyn Barry at the Norfolk Doll Club about 25 years ago. When the Barrys decided to create the museum, Debeixedon and Carolyn collaborated on the doll collection.
"She and I worked on almost every single doll in there," Debeixedon said. "It took us about 2½ years."
Colleagues praised her contributions to the Art Department and the University.
"Dianne has been a friend and mentor to me for more than 30 years," Wojtowicz said. "She even helped me find my first apartment. Later, when I became chair, I relied upon her extensive knowledge of curricular planning to lay the groundwork for much-needed updates to our degree programs. Most important, she instilled in me the importance of empathy, especially when dealing with our students' ever-changing needs."
Kenneth FitzGerald, professor of design, also commended her dedication to students and to upgrading the Art Department's facilities. Debeixedon recalled that classes were once taught in old warehouses and under Foreman Field.
"For me, the Art Department's facilities will always be monuments to her leadership and imagination," he said. "That they are only the highlight of her extensive service demonstrates what a loss her retirement will be to the department and the ODU community."
They also recalled one of her other passions - cats.
"She has always been a fierce advocate for the visual arts, and for cats," said Janet Katz, associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters. "I have always enjoyed my conversations with her about both."
As for her future, Debeixedon, who is married to a physician, Neil King, and has three children, plans to continue working on her art at her Norfolk studio.
As she reflected on her time at ODU, she said she once asked department founder and then-Chair Charles Sibley why he took a chance on such a young faculty member all those years ago.
"His response to me was, 'I've hired all of you young because I want you to sink roots and build a department,'" she said. "ODU's been a wonderful place to work. I feel like your creative endeavors are supported. The resources, the people they bring to campus, the people I've met, the kind of students I have. I've seen it really grow and change."