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August 13, 2012

The woman behind the poster

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in The State newspaper in 1992

Dail Dinwiddie hates that picture of herself, the one plastered on car windows, storefronts and telephone poles all over town.

Her senior picture at college, it shows an attractive woman with shoulder- length hair, parted on the right and swept up like a wing above her left ear.

A friend says she can imagine Dail saying, "I can't believe they have that picture up there, of all the pictures."

Despite that ubiquitous picture, who Dinwiddie is remains as mysterious to most of us as what happened to her after she disappeared from Five Points early in the morning of Sept. 24.

Her friends paint pictures of her that go beyond that poster.

Five feet tall and 98 pounds, she was called by one friend a perfectly proportioned, beautiful, miniature person. Once a group of friends handed her around, lovingly, as if she were a ball. At night, wherever she was, at college or staying with a girlfriend, she slept with her blue cotton teddy bear under her pillow.

But despite, or maybe because of, her size, she learned to demand what she wanted and speak her mind. If a guy paid her unwanted attention, she knew how to make it clear she wasn't interested. She was choosy about her friends and didn't take anyone at face value.

To those who knew her only casually, Dail Dinwiddie could seem standoffish, or shy. While she wasn't easy to get to know, when she was around her best friends, most of whom she'd known most of her life, she loved to laugh, and she made them laugh, too.

They enjoyed life, and until recently, it had gone pretty smoothly. Nothing had prepared any of them for Dail's disappearance at the age of 23.

As a child, Dail had none of the tomboy in her.

"I remember when I first saw her in kindergarten (at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School). She had long silky blond hair and big doe eyes. She was real shy and everything," said Beth Barnett, who has been close friends with her since then.

"She was my one really, really feminine friend," said Mary Keith Stubbs, who grew up with Dail in the Forest Hills section of Columbia. The hilly neighborhood between Forest Drive and Gervais is mostly large brick houses, with narrow, curving streets lined with hardwoods and pines.

Ten kids about the same age lived within a block of each other for years. One game they played a lot was "war," which always ended up with people hollering, fighting, crying and biting.

Dail preferred her Barbie and Cher dolls, playing dress up and in the playhouse in her back yard. And she liked to paint.

Mostly, "she was just very silly, very, very silly, my girlfriend that I would get the giggles with the most," Mary Keith said.

Mary Keith was banned from shopping with Dail and her mom because the girls would hide behind the clothes racks and scare the shoppers as they shuffled through the selection. That is, when they weren't posing as mannequins in the store windows.

"She was a lot of what was happy about my childhood," Mary Keith said.

And every night Dail would sleep with Teddly, a cloth bear her grandmother had made. When she was in about the third grade, she spent a week at Mary Keith's house while her parents were out of town. She sat in front of the bedroom window all night screaming because she'd forgotten Teddly.

And it was in about the third grade that she took her first art class at the Columbia Museum of Art. From then on, "art was pretty much her deal," Mary Keith said.

Also about that time, the girls got in trouble for another of their pranks. They scrawled a bunch of notes saying they were being held hostage and stuck them in mailboxes all over the neighborhood. Rebel cheerleaders

The three close friends, Beth, Mary Keith and Dail were cheerleaders in middle school. "We hated it," Beth said.

The squad was chosen by judges based on skill, rather than popular vote. So half the cheerleaders were "very popular" girls and half weren't. Dail, Mary Keith said, could've been in the popular half. But Beth, Mary Keith and Dail became "the rebels on the cheerleading squad."

"We were supposed to look really pretty. . . . But we would be so retarded, so silly. We would run out to the crowd and do dumb chants, not like a respectable cheerleader," Mary Keith said.

The "popular" girls, including cheerleaders and those who lost out in the judging, were especially mean to one girl who didn't fit in, Mary Keith remembers. "But Dail stood up for her." This was about the seventh grade.

A big part of Dail's life was horses. She began riding at 9, taking lessons at Woodcreek in Pontiac. "Because it looked like fun" her mother began riding lessons a few years later. When Dail was 15, her parents bought her a chestnut mare named Doubletime, which they boarded at Farewell Farms in Blythewood.

About four or five times a year, they'd spend Friday nights feeding the horses, cleaning the tack and packing everything up. They'd load the horse in a trailer and leave late Friday or at 3 or 4 Saturday morning to travel to Tryon or Southern Pines, N.C., for an "event."

"While others were at parties, we were in Tryon at shows," said Jean Dinwiddie, Dail's mother and a homemaker.

Dail's schedule during the horse years was basically home from school, off to the barn, home about 7, bath, study and bed.

It was during this time that she and her mother became especially close.

Once she was allowed to drive, she got her own car, an old, beat-up station wagon that she and Mary Keith had to coax up the hills by patting and talking to it and rocking back and forth, while they listened to the Violent Femmes. 'Hard to get to know'

In high school, Mary Keith said, "she was not into being the most popular; that was not her thing. . . . She did her own thing, and if it melded, great."

Horseback riding, for example, isolated her from most of her friends, but she continued to ride through her junior year.

Rennie Rosenthal and Dail had known each other for years, but became friends their senior year.

"Before we were best friends," Rennie said, "I thought she was a quiet person. . . . She's hard to get to know. . . . She's shy and needs people to put forth the effort first before she starts talking to you."

A solid B student, Dail especially liked her art courses and her English classes with Jim Gasque, her favorite teacher. "She has to study really, really hard in order to do well, but she would do that," Rennie said.

Rennie, Beth and Dail were inseparable in high school.

When they'd get stressed out, the routine was to say, " 'It'll be all right,' " Rennie said, "and then Dail would make us drop it."

While a lot of her teachers described her as sweet, Lark Palma, Heathwood principal and Dail's senior English teacher and college adviser, hates that word.

"I see her differently. She appeared vulnerable and sweet, and unless you really scratched the surface, she appeared malleable to what other people wanted, rather than what she wanted herself. But she found ways of setting her own agenda and keeping her mother happy. . . . I saw a lot of true grit in her."

It was always a big ordeal for Dail and her mom to go shopping. They spent hours finding just the right outfit, then it always had to be altered for the size 4 Dail. "Dail would never buy anything that didn't look just right. She had a good sense of style," Rennie said. "She would always tell us when our hair was too long and made me change clothes sometimes." Blend into a crowd

Dail was thinking about going to Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Rennie, but in 1987, the spring of her senior year, she and her parents went for the weekend to Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va. She fell in love.

Randolph-Macon, about 50 miles northeast of Roanoke, has a 100-acre campus surrounded by a red brick wall. Nearby are Washington and Lee University and Hampden-Sydney, an all-male college.

Called "moderately expensive" for a private school by The Fiske Guide to Colleges, in 1990 it cost about $14,560 a year. Enrollment is about 750.

To help pay for college, the family sold the horse and trailer, as they had planned to do when they bought Doubletime. Dail didn't want to ride very much after her horse was sold, even though the school has a 100-acre riding center 15 minutes away.

Although Dail loved the school, she (and Teddly) transferred to the University of Georgia in the fall of 1988, her sophomore year, because it has a well-known arts program. And she met up with her old friend Mary Keith, and the young women went through rush together, pledging the Chi Omega sorority.

But the climate was terrible for Dail's allergies -- she's had allergies and asthma all her life and took shots weekly for years.

Also, she found she preferred a small school. "Dail can blend into a crowd if it's big, but if it's small, she stands out on top," Rennie said.

So in her junior year she transferred back to Randolph-Macon, graduating in 1991 with a degree in art history. Her senior thesis, on N.C. Wyeth, father of Andrew Wyeth, was chosen as the best in the department.

The young women came home for holidays, but one Christmas stands out. That was the Christmas Rennie gave Dail and Beth "The Giving Tree" by Shel Silverstein, and they alternated reading pages till the end. Dail "really cherishes that moment," Beth said. Taking charge

After college, she changed.

"In high school, she kind of blended in," Beth said, "but after college, she really didn't care what other people thought. She was more willing to do things by herself."

"Randolph-Macon brought out the woman in her," said her father, Dan Dinwiddie, an insurance agent. "They made her believe she could be president" or anything else she wanted.

Home for the summer, Beth went with Dail on her walks everyday. Favorite topics of conversation were boys and Dail's art. "She always had some dilemma with guys. They said something insignificant, and she'd blow it out of proportion," Beth said.

Dail remained close to her mom. "If a guy called, her mom would drive to get her while we were out walking and say, 'Guess who called?' " Beth said.

When the young women went on road trips, they'd play the "Who would you rather kiss?" game. Dail, for example, would name four guys, who could be movie stars or guys they knew, and the others would have to choose one, no matter what.

Dail wanted to get a job as an art restorer. Through her Virginia boyfriend whom she dated through July, she met and liked Brandi Beck, who was teaching dance in public school. Her family said they could bankroll her for a month until she found a job, so the first week of August 1991 she moved in with Brandi in Charlotte.

She did find work in a frame shop. And at night she and Brandi "did everything together." They went to Hornets games, rode in go-carts and frequented a couple of favorite bars, including the Selwyn Avenue Pub. And Dail dragged her roommate along on her daily walks.

"I think she felt because she was so small she had to demand things: 'I want to go home now,' " Brandi said. "She was so tiny, she felt like people would overlook her. So she . . . definitely took charge and let you know when she needed something."

She and her Charlotte friends would go to a popular karaoke bar called Nickyo's Rodeo Restaurant and Saloon every Thursday night and often on weekends. Each one in their group would write down the name of a song -- along with the name of someone in the group -- on a card. When a card was drawn with one of their names on it, they had to sing.

"Dail had a good voice," Brandi said. "I admit she had to have a few drinks in her to do it, but she would sing her little heart out."

Dail thought she'd be able to find a job in art restoration in Charlotte. But as time went on, she realized she needed a master's to get the kind of job she wanted. She decided to move back in with her parents to save money and do what she had to do to get into graduate school.

"She really was happy in Charlotte and didn't want to leave," Brandi said, "but she knew this way she could leave, go to graduate school and possibly return later and live in Charlotte." 'She's on her way'

The last weekend in March, after a big surprise party in Charlotte the weekend before, Dail moved back to Westminster Drive.

She found that some of her friends had done the same thing. Mary Keith was living at home working as a waitress after graduating from Georgetown University, where she'd transferred from Georgia.

Beth also was back home for the summer.

Nearly every day, Dail took art classes at the home of her high school art teacher, Sally Ashley, who was helping her prepare a portfolio for graduate architecture classes at Clemson. She also was considering a master's in art history from the University of South Carolina.

"She walked out of my artroom because we had finished matting and mounting her work to take to her interview at Clemson," Ashley said. "We hugged each other and jumped up and down like little girls . . . and giggled. She was excited about the decisions she's made. And, I thought, she's on her way."

Dail also took engineering drawing and pre-algebra at Midlands Tech and was attending the Stanley Kaplan school to study for the Graduate Record Examination on Wednesdays, with a lab in the morning and class in the evening. She had gone to class the evening before she disappeared.

She also enjoyed going to Forest Lake Club, an exclusive Columbia country club where her parents were members, over the summer. And weekends she'd go to the soccer games in which her brother, Drew, who's seven years younger, was playing.

On Thursdays, she and friends, including Beth, would go to Pug's in Five Points for 25 cent beer and end up at Jungle Jim's. They'd sometimes go on Fridays and Saturdays as well.

She was no-nonsense about guys, Mary Keith said. "If a boy was flirting with her all night, at the end of the evening she would tell him, "I'm not interested in you, get away from me.' . . . She believed that it was better to be straight up, so that they both could go on with their lives.

"She has a very strong front; she had (a) look that she'd give people. We would laugh about it. I would say, 'Look out.' And she'd laugh, 'Oh, no, I have that look again, don't I?'

"She was a good character judge. She watched things very closely. . . . She never would accept somebody right off the bat.

"She liked people that were fun, that knew who they were. She didn't have many friends who weren't really, really together, who didn't know what they wanted."

A few weeks before she disappeared, she had decided to pursue a master's in art history, probably at USC. Although her family was having some recession-related financial problems, friends say she was happy, looking forward to school and a career.

"She's a real strong person," Rennie said. "She can take care of herself. Whoever has her -- she's giving them a piece of her mind. It's really hard to break her spirit."

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