Diane Hanson may have recently stepped down as its mayor after six years in the position, but the sun still rises and sets on Dewey Beach for her – literally.
“You can watch the sun rise over the ocean and walk a couple blocks over to the bay to watch it set. You can’t say that about a lot of places,” she said.
Hanson’s maiden name is Charske; her German grandfather is listed at Ellis Island. She was born at beginning of the baby boomer generation in 1946, recently turning 70, and grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. Although Hanson was her high school valedictorian, she didn’t have nearly as many career options as women do now.
“Women were pretty much limited to being a housewife, a secretary, a teacher or a nurse. They’re all wonderful professions, but none of them appealed to me, especially the housewife part. I saw home economics as a way for women to get into business, so after a nutritionist spoke to my class, I went home and told my mother that’s what I was going to do,” Hanson said.
She went on to major in nutrition at Cornell University and eventually moved to Connecticut to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Expanded Nutrition Education Program, teaching low-income residents the value of nutrition and how to improve their diets. As someone who has at times been perceived as anti-alcohol, Hanson ironically met her husband, Bill, in a Connecticut singles bar. They married when she was 27.
At a certain point, Hanson began to feel dissatisfied with the career path she’d taken and wanted to move on. She met someone at a party one night who said she should look into pharmaceutical sales, and she ran with it.
“I ended up being one of the first female sales reps in all of New England. I did that for 15 years and became one of the first females in the industry in management. It was one of the few times I didn’t have to worry about the line at the ladies room at a conference,” she joked.
After being promoted to a training position, Hanson became a sales manager in 1980 and was assigned to a district in the Philadelphia area that included Delaware.
“I think it was a set-up, because that district was a total disaster. But when all was said and done we had become one of the top districts in the country,” Hanson said.
She and her husband settled into life in the West Chester area, where Hanson, a lifelong animal lover, eventually served as president of the Chester County SPCA. But as the new decade began, Hanson was itching to move up in the business. The still very patriarchal pharmaceutical industry, however, wasn’t ready for females above middle management. On top of that, Hanson’s long-time boss, whom she adored, went to another department.
“Between that and hitting the glass ceiling, I was so out of there,” she said.
Hanson started job-shopping at other pharmaceutical companies, but found she’d have to start from scratch and work her way up through the ranks again with a new employer.
“After about a year of soul searching, I up and resigned to start my own business. My mother just about had a heart attack,” she said. “I told her that what I didn’t want to do was to have to say ‘What if?’”
Hanson began working as a management consultant, going in to businesses that were having structural problems and advising them on how to improve their operations. She took on many clients in Delaware, including the state itself, helping various state agencies work together to reform welfare under the Clinton administration.
Although Hanson had visited Dewey Beach several times in the ‘80s, she really got to know the tiny town in the ‘90s while staying with a state employee who lived in the Forgotten Mile area.
“I thought Dewey was paradise,” she said. In 1998, she and her husband bought their first Dewey Beach property. They now own three.
Hanson spent 20 years running her own consultant company, eventually garnering a handful of employees of her own. On the fateful date of Sept. 11, 2001, she was in Wilmington, where one of her major clients was headquartered, for a contract renewal meeting. Though the meeting was rescheduled due to the terrorist attack, Hanson had anticipated it might be the end of the line for her, and she was right. When she did finally meet with the company, not only were they not renewing her contract, but they planned to hire all of her employees.
“I said, ‘You realize you’ve just put me out of business?’ And the woman I was speaking to then reminded me of a clause in my contract,” Hanson said. That clause specified that the company couldn’t hire Hanson’s employees unless they paid her 50 percent of each hire’s annual salary.
“That clause bought my current home,” she said.
Despite the loss of a major client, Hanson had plenty of work as a consultant for the next few years, but in 2003, she suffered a major setback. Hanson was struck by a car while driving in West Chester, suffering severe strains to her neck, back, knees and wrists. She would eventually undergo several surgeries on her wrist.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but it really made everyday activities painful,” Hanson said, “I was never the same.”
After the accident, Hanson began to work less, which led to spending more time in Dewey Beach.
“With my being unable to work, our weekends in Dewey got longer and longer, and eventually it just made sense to move here full-time,” she said. In 2006, Hanson and her husband sold their West Chester home and took up residence in Dewey.
Hanson soon took a seat on the town’s Ruddertowne Architectual Committee. It was there she was introduced to the idea of a 65-foot-tall Hyatt hotel, to be built on Coastal Highway at Dickinson Street bayside.
The Code of the Town of Dewey Beach limited hotels to 35 feet and prohibited any new hotels whatsoever. Hotel officials managed to bypass the moratorium, but a town-wide referendum showed that 86 percent of residents were in favor of enforcing the height regulation. Hanson asked the developer’s attorney what room there was for negotiation and got a flat “None.”
“That annoyed me. That guy’s just trying to bully this town and it’s not what the people want,” said Hanson. “That’s when I decided to run for commissioner.”
Hanson won by a landslide in 2007, but despite her revere with constituents, she hadn’t made many friends politically.
“In that economy, politicians were looking at the hotel in terms of jobs. Business owners liked the idea because they thought it would bring them more business,” she said. “But the townspeople didn’t want it. They didn’t want to become the next Ocean City.”
The next few years were “total tumult” for both Dewey Beach and Hanson. The developer sued the town six times and Hanson had ethics violations filed against her twice.
“When I was on the architectural committee, I mailed out a letter to citizens making them aware of what the developer was planning to do with the hotel,” she said, “I got an ethics violation because, apparently, that was inappropriate for a member of a town committee. I was new to town and didn’t know. The violation was dismissed.”
The second ethics violation would not be dismissed so easily.
“They zeroed in on the fact that I owned rental property in Dewey and said that I would be in competition with the hotel, which would make it a conflict of interest. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I own beachfront property; I am not in competition with any bayside real estate. They wanted to block me from voting on the issue,” Hanson said.
Feeling as though she was being undeservedly persecuted, Hanson hired an attorney. “At the first meeting, their mind was made up before I got there,” she said. The Delaware Public Integrity Commission found her to be in violation of ethics. “If this was allowed to stand, any developer in any town could do the same thing. They could find some picayune thing and bypass the law. I was going to fight the decision to the Supreme Court, even if I had to use my own money.”
Hanson’s appeal first went to the Superior Court, where a judge wrote a 50-page decision in her favor, saying the PIC used illogical reasoning, violated its own rules and had no evidence. The PIC filed an appeal to that decision.
As time passed, Hanson bore the brunt of bad press and nasty property crimes. A dead chicken was once left on her walkway. Someone emptied an ashtray into her car.
“A Washington Post reporter told me my face was on the deodorizer cakes in the men’s restrooms in the bars,” she recalled. “It was tough, but I wasn’t going to give up.”
The case did make its way to the Supreme Court, and on the first day the justices asked if anyone on the PIC had an interest in Dewey Beach real estate, as the PIC claimed Hanson had.
As it turned out, Hanson said, “The president of the commission, Barbara Green, and her husband were both realtors in the area. She could’ve sold condos at that hotel.”
The Supreme Court issued an opinion supporting the lower court’s favor of Hanson in just five days.
Ultimately, the Dewey Beach commissioners voted 4-1, the one naysayer being Hanson, to allow the hotel to build. However, due to negotiations that had taken place while Hanson was in litigation, the hotel would be built at neither 35 nor 65 feet, but at 46 feet.
“Ironically, the hotel’s vision now aligns with mine,” Hanson said, referring to the family-friendly practices she’s in favor of. “Politics makes for strange bedfellows.”
After her very public victory against the PIC, Hanson was elected mayor in 2010. She’s proud of many things she’s achieved during her tenure.
“First and foremost, the town is a much quieter, peaceful and safer place. I used to get 10 emails every Monday from property owners complaining about drunks urinating in their yards or something like that. People were afraid to send their kids to the corner to get ice cream because someone would be shouting curse words or fighting.”
Hanson wanted a family-friendly resort and asked businesses to minimize public intoxication in town. They were none too fond of her after the hotel debacle, but Hanson had proven that she was not one to back down.
“If someone gets drunk, don’t put them on the streets of Dewey. Put them in a cab. When you put them on the streets it creates problems for police, which can lead to lawsuits and accusations of police brutality. It costs a lot of money and it makes the town look bad,” she said. “The bars have started having more training for employees and being more careful. There’s less over-serving. Now, if someone is kicked out, the bars text each other to be on the lookout for that person.”
Hanson also lauds the Dewey Beach Business Partnership, which she says was started in order to extend the business season and is responsible for many family-friendly attractions in town.
“Now we have an Easter egg hunt, trick or treating, an arts festival, bonfires and movies on the beach. The businesses are really working hard at it and I think they’re seeing the benefits,” she said. “When we work together we have a much better town.”
In September, Hanson announced she was stepping down and had nominated Dewey Beach Commissioner Dale Cooke for mayor. “I’m not sure about the future, to be honest. I told Dale that if he doesn’t do a good enough job, I’ll run against his butt next year,” she said with a grin.
At the end of her term next year, Hanson will have served the town for a decade. She said she already has plans for what she will do with her free time.
“I wrote a book 15 years ago that was never published, and I want to get that done,” she said.
“Top Dog Management: What I Learned About Leadership From My Dog” is a business fable that centers on techniques she used to train an unruly dog – yanking his chain, rewarding him with treats – that work on employees as well.
Hanson has a cockapoo and two cats she plans to continue to enjoy, as well as hobbies like gardening and reading. She’ll keep her eye on town business, as well.
“Infrastructure in Dewey Beach was placed in the ‘60s and has never been improved upon,” she said. “That’s something that will need to be addressed. And with sea level rise, we may ultimately have to change the 35-foot height limit. People close to shore will have to build higher.”
Hanson’s six-year term as mayor may be coming to an end, but her passion for the Town of Dewey Beach lives on.