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Lawyer’s life leads to visionary role

Jim Dissen is a lawyer, human resources expert, educator, volunteer and visionary.

The visionary came out of his desire to serve, his proactive nature, and his observation of how organizations work.

How he came to be in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1966 illustrates his desire to serve and his proactive nature. Those of Dissen's generation may recall the 1960s were a tumultuous time: There were race riots, protests against the Vietnam War and a growing women's liberation movement. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, conspiracy theories were rampant.

"I didn't get drafted," Dissen said. "I enlisted. So instead of two years, I went in for three. I went into Army intelligence and trained as a counter-intelligence agent. I wore civilian clothes and drove an unmarked car.

"I thought it was a defining moment in our country's history and in mine, too. You could see the nation starting to change. We came out of World War II and then there was Vietnam. Some people were burning the flag.

"I was running a background investigation and had to interview the president of Xavier University. He asked where I went to college and I said, 'Wheeling.' He said, 'Oh, one of our newest Jesuit universities. Have you thought about going to graduate school? Send me a transcript of your grades.'

"The next week I got a letter saying, 'You're admitted into the fall program for your Masters in Business Administration,' " Dissen recalled. "I went to graduate school at night and on weekends and got my MBA from Xavier (in 1966). Then I went to law school (at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, graduating in 1972). I drove 100 miles to class. I've always pushed the envelope."

Dissen started working at the Columbia Gas System in Pittsburgh in 1966 as a personnel assistant, then became personnel manager at two Columbia subsidiaries in 1968. Fresh out of law school, "Columbia Gas asked me to come down here in 1973," he recalled. "They said, 'Go to Charleston for a year and then you can do what you want.' I came down and never left."

He started working in Charleston as Columbia Gas Transmission Corp.'s director of labor relations.

"Probably because of the fact I am a lawyer, I didn't mind going in to work early in the early days, doing my own research, writing my own briefs," Dissen said. "I discovered that you have to be there for everybody. If there are departmental meetings and you don't go, somebody thinks you don't care. So you go into a lot of meetings. I noticed that if you're a leader, what's expected is that you have something for the next step.

"Attorneys and doctors and auto mechanics are tactical thinkers," Dissen said. "You've got a problem and they think, 'I'll fix it for you.' The ones who have to lead organizations have to have more strategic thinking. They see a problem and think about how to tactically put the necessary resources to it, but they also think about the next step."

In 1996, Henry Harmon took Dissen to Cagney's, a popular lunch spot that has since become an office building owned by St. Francis Hospital.

"Henry had taken over as president of Columbia Natural Resources," Columbia's natural gas exploration and drilling subsidiary. "Henry said he would like for me to come over to CNR and work for him. I said, 'Henry, I'm one of the few guys left at Columbia Gas Transmission who has a labor background. No job is safe but no one else does this work.'

"He put his vision for CNR on a napkin and said he would like for me to be with him on that. I said, 'OK.' We never talked money. We never talked job responsibilities."

Dissen became CNR's vice president of corporate development. His responsibilities included human resources, communications, government relations and administrative services.

In 2000, NiSource bought CNR. In 2001, Harmon, Dissen and several others decided to form Triana Energy. NiSource put CNR up for sale in 2003 and Triana bought it.

In 2005, Triana sold CNR to Chesapeake Energy Corp. and made an estimated $1.87 billion profit.

Throughout the ups and downs of the natural gas business, Dissen stuck with Harmon.

Asked if he has had any mentors, Dissen named three:

  • Harmon. "He is a finance guy but I watched how he was constantly visioning, thinking, What's the next step.' "
  • His wife, Shirley. "We started a family right away," Dissen said. "I was on the road a lot. She paid the bills, kept the home fires burning, went to school at night, picked up undergraduate and graduate degrees. When the kids were in high school, she was human resources manager for Petroleum Products. She loved politics and volunteered" and eventually served several years as state director for U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
  • Monsignor P. Edward Sadie of Sacred Heart Basilica. In addition to having a head for business, "I've talked to people who he has really helped as a spiritual leader," Dissen said.

Dissen has taught part time at the University of Charleston for 24 years. "I tell students, 'Don't be afraid,' " he said. "You're educated and have already shown you have the intellectual capacity to do good work. Don't sit at your desk waiting on somebody to give you something. If you need to, go out and do your own research.

"Those who sit back and wait for something to happen are going to still be sitting there."

Dissen voluntarily retired from Triana Energy in May. He continued serving on the boards and committees of numerous community organizations. One was Highland Hospital, where he began serving on the Board of Trustees in 1992. He became chairman in 2005.

Earlier this year Highland Hospital needed someone to step in as president and chief executive officer. Although Dissen had never run a psychiatric hospital before, he agreed to take on the task.

Now he is formulating a vision for Highland's future.

The hospital has not only opened a new building in Kanawha City, it is in the process of opening the former United Hospital Center property in Clarksburg as a mental health facility for children, adolescents, adults and court-ordered patients.

"I saw where that facility is and how accommodating Clarksburg City Manager Martin Howe is," said Dissen. "I recognized that that community has lost some business over the years. I know we have West Virginia University in Morgantown, William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston and Highland in Charleston.

"Why can't we turn that Clarksburg campus into the go-to place for mental health, not only for the state but for the nation? I'm sure the Cleveland Clinic had to start small. This could be the 'Cleveland Clinic of mental health.' "

Dissen has had some promising preliminary talks with Dr. James Stevenson, chairman of West Virginia University's Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry. "I told him I would like to turn the Clarksburg campus into a teaching hospital, partner with WVU. He said he would be a resource to help us with our medical staff. He asked if I knew what it would cost to put together a residency program.

"I have a vision, not the budget," Dissen said. "It will probably take time beyond my tenure, but you have to start."

Asked if he has a motto, Dissen said: "Life is a river. Sometimes the river is nice and smooth. At other times there are rapids. But you've got to be moving forward."

Contact writer George Hohmann at or 304-348-4836.


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