Betty Jane Diener, a business school administrator who served as the secretary of commerce and resources under then-Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb, died Jan. 23 at a clinic in Weston, Fla. She was 74.
The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, said a friend, Elizabeth Boynton.
Dr. Diener, a former dean of the business school at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, was Virginia’s secretary of commerce from 1982 to 1986, presiding over 22 state agencies, 52 boards and commissions, 4,000 employees and an annual budget of $945 million with responsibilities for labor, industry, agriculture, tourism and the environment.
During her years as an officer in Robb’s cabinet in Richmond, Dr. Diener fought for coal mining safety and environmental protections. She removed the word “plantation” from a state tourism brochure, arguing that it evoked an image of the state’s pre-Civil War slave society.
She became known for an exuberant, freewheeling and blunt style of speech and operation that often seemed at odds with the state’s tradition of gentility.
“Betty Diener swears,” a delegation of male legislators and businessmen complained to Robb early in her term of office, according to a 1984 Washington Post profile.
“Don’t men swear?’” answered the governor.
Well, yes, the men said, but this was, after all, Virginia, and this was a lady.
“I didn’t hire her to be a lady. I hired her to be secretary of commerce,” the governor said. (Robb, a Democrat, later served in the U.S. Senate.)
Dr. Diener was the subject of dozens of news stories recounting her less-than-genteel conduct. She was reported to have thrown a cake in the face of the governor’s chief of staff and to have threatened to break the fingers of a state agency chief. Some such tales, she said, may have themselves been enhanced by a form of journalistic exuberance.
“When I first got in office I was ‘embattled,’ ” she told The Post in 1984. “Then, about a year later, ‘controversial.’ Now there’s a new one, ‘outspoken,’ so at least the level has come down.”
Betty Jane Diener was born Sept. 15, 1940, in Washington and grew up in Arlington County. She graduated in 1958 from Washington-Lee High School and in 1962 from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. At Harvard Business School, she received a master’s degree in business administration in 1964 and a doctorate in business administration in 1974.
Before she became dean of the business school at Old Dominion in 1979, Dr. Diener was an assistant dean and professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Earlier, she had jobs in private industry.
After her service as Virginia’s secretary of commerce, she was provost and a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. From 2002 to 2012, she was professor of management and analysis at the Andreas School of Business at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla. She lived in Fort Lauderdale.
Her husband of 11 years, Robert D. Bell, died in 1993. She had no immediate survivors.