Debbie Dibbert has held some of Carolina’s most powerful jobs. As director of external affairs for UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, she was present when state lawmakers approved a new cancer hospital. For the next decade she raised funds for Lineberger to grow. As Chancellor Carol Folt’s chief of staff, she navigated top leadership through long-brewing challenges that came to a head in the space of a few short years. And as assistant vice chancellor of principal and major gifts, she played a key role in raising $5.1 billion in the recent Campaign for Carolina.
An influencer before the term went mainstream, Dibbert has had a reputation for bringing people together and getting things done. A simple text from her could loosen a bureaucratic logjam. Yet she never pulled rank. “She can’t walk on water,” a colleague said. “But she knows where the stones are to make it look like she can.”
A Tufts University graduate, Dibbert began the North Carolina chapter of her career raising money for Durham Academy, a competitive private school for students from preschool through high school. Lineberger’s director recognized her talent as they became acquainted while attending events at the school where each had children enrolled. He recruited her to Lineberger, which was on the cusp of tremendous growth.
During the next 11-plus years, Dibbert convinced thousands of people to support cancer treatment and research. Her reputation for diplomacy, authenticity, trustworthiness and bankability — when she says she’ll do something, you can count on her delivering — circulated beyond the hospital to the campus at large. In the aftermath of the NCAA investigation into academic fraud that involved student athletes, the administration recruited Dibbert as chief of staff for the Office of the Chancellor.
In that role, Dibbert’s communications skills served the University well because, as one person who was often in the limelight said, “When you speak, people assume you’re speaking for your boss.”
These were years when Carolina faced difficult issues. While Dibbert would acknowledge the troubling situations and commiserate with people when they asked about the latest developments, she always moved the conversation toward the positive, toward opportunities for change and the progress being made. “She loves UNC deeply but not blindly,” a colleague said.
Dibbert has had a seat at the table during the biggest conversations with leadership, and she has led. She can read a room well, home in on the motivations of people with different viewpoints and see what drives their passions. With that knowledge, she can disarm even the most well-defended person and find common ground among those who’d swear there was none. “I always felt that we’d be OK if she was on the job,” a colleague said. “People across the University trust her.”
Of course, none of her success came without sacrifice. Dibbert worked long hours, at the office before 7 a.m. and still there when her co-workers left. Nights, weekends, she still answered her phone and texts. She was never not available. “You can’t outwork Debbie,” said a colleague.
When staff had to work through lunch, sometimes a co-worker would volunteer to walk to Franklin Street to pick up food. You never had to ask Dibbert what she wanted. Her order was always the same — an egg salad sandwich from Sutton’s, on white-bread toast.
Dibbert has never sought the spotlight; instead, she has searched for impact. One of the few times her effort and success were lauded publicly came in 2014, when the National Association of Cancer Center Development Officers honored her with a service award for her commitment to mentoring, collaborating and going above and beyond.
And those keeping track recall that Dibbert applied her talents to make a difference in the town of Chapel Hill as well. In 1989, as co-chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Downtown Commission, she persuaded local elected officials to revive the downtown by defining a municipal services district in Chapel Hill that included a tax increase, and in Carrboro she paved the way for Cat’s Cradle to reopen.
Part of Dibbert’s success is that she’s unflappable. When she and those who work with her have a thousand things to do, she is rock-steady and keeps others calm and on track. When someone sitting next to her at a gala dinner spilled tea — literally, an entire glass of iced tea — on her dress, she continued doing everything she needed to do, even if she was a bit damp. After all, as the mother of two boys, she’d experienced worse. And she has a lot of Carolina blue apparel.
Dibbert carried her power lightly and encouraged those around her to keep going. When some hectic days had co-workers asking, “What are we doing here?” Dibbert pointed to a major success. “We’ve raised $1 billion in scholarships for students. That’s what we’re doing here.”
The Distinguished Service Medal is presented by the GAA Board of Directors.