Bill Diehl says: 'I liked to win.'
In many ways, Bill Diehl is less Bill Diehl-like than he used to be.
Over a decades-long career defending some of Charlotte’s biggest names, his own name came to be associated with very specific characteristics: The long hair, the ruddy complexion, the mountainous size, the willingness to say what others wouldn’t, the keenness with which he ripped opposing attorneys and their clients to pieces.
At 73 years old, Bill Diehl now spends most of his time in a big La-Z-Boy in front of a small television. He’s in the skilled nursing wing of SouthPark’s Sharon Towers, recovering from a debilitating stroke in December. He rarely gets out. He’s unable to walk. He has much less to say than he used to.
But the bark? Still there.
“I liked to win,” he says, reflecting on his career. “And I won more often than I lost.”
His brother Danny Diehl pipes in, earnestly: “You would believe in these people, too, wouldn’t you? ... I mean, you wouldn’t take everybody. You had to sort of believe in them, didn’t you?”
To which Bill Diehl gives a very Bill Diehl answer:
That’s Bill Diehl. Direct and definitive. Brash and braggadocious. Wickedly funny and wildly quotable without really trying.
And yet, after spending time with him and getting a sense of the sadness and frustration he feels over the loss of his two great passions in life — working hard and playing hard — one wonders: Where does Bill Diehl go from here?
‘Better than everybody at everything’
Born William K. Diehl Jr. but better known as Billy while growing up in Norfolk, Va., he and his family relocated to North Carolina around his 10th-grade year. His newspaperman father had decided to switch careers and bought an AM radio station in the small city of Kinston, about four hours east of Charlotte.
At Kinston’s Grainger High School, he played football and baseball and wrestled; at home, he was the oldest of six children (four boys and two girls) — and the loudest and most competitive.
“He was better than everybody at everything,” recalls Fred Diehl, who is six years younger than Bill. “You just didn’t want to get into a fight with him. It wasn’t like he was beating us up, but he could be vicious, verbally. He could out-yell you. ... I think we all looked up to him, though.”
In 1962, Diehl headed off to UNC-Chapel Hill to study political science while his father moved the family to Florida, where he’d bought three radio stations.
To be clear, the Diehls were squarely middle-class. Yes, Bill Sr. could afford radio stations, but they were hardly goldmines, and with eight mouths to feed his income was spread thin. When they went to a restaurant, the kids were instructed to order from the cheap side of the menu. Someday, Bill Jr. vowed, I’ll order whatever I want.
Meanwhile, he paid his way through college by working full-time selling suits and ties at the famed Milton’s Clothing Cupboard on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, and spent summers spinning rock and Top 40 records at his dad’s station in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., under the moniker “Willie KD.”
He would find the woman he would marry in college — a schoolteacher named Catherine Lane — but he made it through four years without finding a vocation.
Asked what appealed to him about going to law school (at the University of Virginia), Diehl says: “It was better than Vietnam.”
War may have been the only fight Diehl ever shied away from.
In fact, just a few days after starting his first job at the Herbert, James & Williams law firm in 1969, he went toe-to-toe with one of the guys whose name was on the sign out front. Senior partner Pinckney Herbert wrote Diehl a note asking him to cut his shoulder-length reddish-blonde hair. Diehl wrote a note back suggesting Herbert wear longer socks to cover his unappealing legs.
Diehl kept his hair the way it was. For the next 47 years.
‘You got what you were paying for’
For most of his legal career — all of which he spent at what’s now James, McElroy & Diehl — Diehl was generally regarded as the city’s best-known divorce lawyer.
If you were extraordinarily wealthy and your marriage was about to go down the drain, you raced to call Bill Diehl and prayed that your soon-to-be-ex hadn’t retained his services first. (His famous divorce clients included billionaire Speedway Motorsports mogul Bruton Smith, Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates and wrestler Ric Flair.)
But while bad marriages made Diehl rich, it was the high-profile clients who hired him to defend them in other types of scrapes that made him famous.
He represented George Shinn in a civil trial that was covered exhaustively by Court TV and saw the then-Charlotte Hornets owner acquitted of sexual assault. He defended former PTL executive vice president Richard Dortch, negotiating a lesser sentence in exchange for the testimony that put televangelist Jim Bakker in prison for fraud. He made national headlines when he successfully thwarted an effort by Christian conservatives to stop Charlotte Repertory Theatre from staging Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America.”
Other notable current and former Charlotteans who hired Diehl to get them out of tough spots, each worthy of a full chapter in a Bill Diehl biography on their own merits: former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, former NASCAR driver Jeremy Mayfield, former Charlotte Hornet David Wesley, radio personality John Isley (half of “The John Boy & Billy Big Show”) and religious sect leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh — whose exploits are now the focus of a new Netflix series titled “Wild Wild Country” (which includes archival footage of Diehl in action).
What made Diehl so sought-after? What particular set of skills did he have that made him The Guy to call?
Well, Diehl was louder and meaner than the other side. He’d call people names; he’d dig skeletons out of their closets and scatter the bones all over the courtroom; he had a reputation for being able to sniff out the opposition’s jugular, and once he found it he’d go after it with the biggest knife he could find.
And he was fiercely competitive.
“Sometimes you have to make that decision whether you’d rather win the war than the battle, but most of the time when you were working with Bill on the other side, you knew that he was gonna try to win the war and all the battles,” says Nicole Sodoma, a longtime rival Charlotte family law attorney.
And he was extraordinarily well-prepared.
Says Mecklenburg District Judge Christy Mann: “There’s so many lawyers who’ll come into court and ... they wing it. Not him. He’s got his questions laid out, he’s got his documents organized and prepared, he’s got a plan. He’s like an army general carrying out a battle plan.”
Adds retired Superior Court Judge Richard Boner: “He was probably one of the best-prepared lawyers that ever appeared in my courtroom.
“I know that he was expensive,” Boner adds. “But I will tell you this: He fulfilled, in every case that I witnessed, the mandate that’s in the canon of ethics for attorneys — that you should represent your client zealously within the bounds of the law. ... Even though you paid him a lot of money, you got what you were paying for.”
What Diehl did with his ‘crazy money’
One of Diehl’s childhood dreams had been to order whatever he wanted at a restaurant.
As his career really got going and gigantic paychecks came rolling in, he could have walked in and bought the whole place: In his prime, Diehl was charging upward of $1,000 an hour, and commanded a retainer in the tens of thousands. (“One time,” he boasts, “I got a hundred-thousand.”)
What did he spend the money on? Pretty much whatever he wanted.
At one point, he had houses in Charlotte, Charleston and Ocean Isle Beach. He bought a 43-foot sailboat and learned how to sail when his son Bill and daughter Caki were kids. He always owned the biggest BMW that BMW made, and when he got tired of driving BMWs, he bought the biggest Mercedes on the market. He leased a private jet for a couple of years, and to this day calls it “the best thing I ever did with my crazy money.”
Panthers season tickets: Check. Hornets season tickets: Check.
He also was a regular in the front row at big concerts in town. Marcus Smith (who as president of Speedway Motorsports, general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway and son of Bruton Smith isn’t a guy who gets bad seats at concerts) says every time he’d go to a show thinking he had really good seats, he’d settle in and “I could see Bill Diehl’s unmistakeable hair a few rows up.”
His home is filled with a staggering collection of neckties, enough bottles of fine reds and whites to open a wine bar, and floor-to-ceiling shelves jammed with so many great classic-rock albums that it’s far easier to guess one that is in his collection of roughly 7,500 than one that isn’t.
When owning records didn’t seem to be enough, he spent money making his own: Back in the ’90s, he formed Big Diehl Records and tried to launch a local band called Doubting Thomas, leveraging connections to land Widespread Panic’s John Keane as producer and Peter Buck and Bill Berry of R.E.M. as guest musicians.
Then there were the legendary birthday celebrations.
For his 50th, Diehl sprung for a chartered plane that flew him and his then-wife Catherine (they divorced in 2004) plus three other couples to St. Martin, then rented a sailboat that took everyone to St. Barthelemy.
For his 60th, he threw a wild rock ‘n’ roll party at Amos’ Southend that was attended by more than 600 of his friends, enemies and clients, and featured a band — “the World Class Rockers” — stacked with members of Toto, Steppenwolf, the Eagles and Journey (his all-time favorite group). George Shinn, Bruton Smith and Ric Flair all sent showstopping birthday wishes via video.
And for his 69th, he hired rocker Grace Potter, rented out The Fillmore and spent $35,000 on what he calls “the best party ever.”
He got turned on to Potter when he took the private jet to Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside of Denver in 2011, when she opened for the Avett Brothers. Diehl was using the plane to get to concerts that year like it was his job — even when it seemed silly to fly: He flew to Greenville, S.C., with pal Andy Pressley to see Kid Rock that February. That March, he took Pressley on the plane to a Prince show in Columbia.
“It was easier to drive, but for some reason we flew,” says Pressley, who owns a real estate and development business in Charlotte. “And at the end of the night, there were two planes sitting out on the runway — ours, and Prince’s. We waited about an hour to see if we could catch him on the runway. Wouldn’t that have been a great picture? Me, Big Bill, Prince, and the two planes.”
What that picture would have illustrated in fine detail is this: Bill Diehl was living the life of a rock star. He could go anywhere and do anything.
Then he woke up one day to find that he couldn’t.
Does he still have some fight left?
Diehl was already in declining health when he retired at the end of 2016. And without casework to throw himself into or the mobility and energy to go out partying, apathy set in almost immediately.
“Going from a life with purpose to a life without purpose is very difficult,” Diehl says. “I went from working 12 hours a day to no hours a day.”
He says he basically just sat in his living room watching TV for the next 12 months. His brother Danny found him there late that December afternoon, unresponsive, and called 911.
Since the stroke, Diehl has been mostly confined to his room. His right leg essentially doesn’t work, so he spends 45 minutes a day in physical therapy trying to get it working again. That’s the biggest obstacle standing between him and regaining some independence.
The most “normal” thing he’s done in recent months?
Assisted by Danny, who has steadfastly overseen his big brother’s care, Bill Diehl was shuttled to uptown’s Spectrum Center for several Hornets games in the season’s second half. He’s bought courtside season tickets to NBA games in Charlotte for 30 years, and post-stroke, he’s still courtside: When his wheelchair wouldn’t fit along the sidelines, the team found him a prime spot in the corner of the floor.
Now that the season is over, though, Diehl probably won’t get out much unless and until that leg comes around. It’s a huge production to go virtually anywhere, and he hasn’t taken up Danny’s offer to get him to a concert, mostly because parking a wheelchair in the front row isn’t practical.
So when a visitor asks how things are going — how they’re really going — he gets a very Bill Diehl answer: “This is sh---y. I can’t do anything, and I don’t like that.”
As Diehl recuperates, the world he used to dominate moves on without him. (His old firm has moved on literally, from shabby longtime headquarters at Stonewall and College streets to shinier digs at Tryon and Ninth.)
There’s no question he misses his old life — the thrill of throttling an opponent in the courtroom, the rush of rocking out in the front row — and barring a major miracle, he’ll never reclaim it.
It’s a sad reality for him, and it’s a sad reality for the people who know him best.
“I don’t think Bill ever saw himself as an older person doing older-people things,” says former colleague Claire Samuels, a close friend of Diehl’s for years. “He always saw himself and viewed his life as concerts, and fun dinners, and sailing trips ... I don’t think that Bill was the kind of person that looked down the road and thought, ‘Well, what about that time I’m gonna be hangin’ out at Sharon Towers?’”
Some of those closest to him worry he doesn’t have enough fight left in him.
“I think he is more resigned to his situation than I as his good friend would want him to be,” says Sammy Thompson, a Raleigh lawyer and one of Diehl’s best friends since college. “Now, he could still surprise me, and I’d love it if he did, but” — Thompson pauses, then sighs heavily. “I’m not sure that he’s got the capability of doing that.”
But remember, this is the guy who nearly always ran toward a fight, not away from one.
So when he says he that he is focused on getting better, that he’s ready to get out of this room, that he doesn’t want to die, you believe him — because he also has never been a guy who minced words.
And he still knows a good fight when he sees one. A guest recently presented him with a story to find out whether it’s true:
A new lawyer sits down on his first day at James, McElroy & Diehl, leans back, and hollers to his secretary to get him a cup of coffee. Suddenly, Bill Diehl bursts in, grabs him out of his chair and pulls him down the hall into the kitchenette. “We make our own coffee here,” Diehl bellows.
Then he shows the new lawyer how to make a pot of coffee. After they watch the pot fill with black liquid, he pours a cup and hands it to the kid. “Thank you,” the new lawyer says, quivering. “That’s not for you,” Diehl growls. “That’s for your f------ secretary.”
“That’s right,” Diehl says now. “You’re bringing things back that I forgot happened.”
His grizzled face melts into a smile, and maybe for a moment, Bill Diehl feels like Bill Diehl again.