Will Dittman is a leader with a passion for art, the environment

St. Bernard senior Will Dittman is seen Wednesday, May 18, 2016.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
St. Bernard senior Will Dittman is seen Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Montville — Ask Saint Bernard School senior Will Dittman how to improve living conditions in Guatemala, and he doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“I would restructure the system of education to enable children to receive a higher education, and enforce rules for the workforce so that people, even children, aren't taken away from their families and forced to work in harsh conditions,” Dittman, 18, said one morning earlier this month, near the end of his PowerPoint presentation about the Central American country for his social justice and theology class.

That Dittman, who lives in Stonington and will graduate from the Catholic school on Friday, should enunciate such a succinct and focused remedy for the small, impoverished nation of 12 million — with more than its share of complex economic, environmental and social problems — shows some of the traits that distinguish him.

President of his class for the past two years, Dittman is seen as a natural leader who understands and articulates what needs to be done to accomplish a particular goal.

“I feel like I have a business head, and I like leadership and negotiating,” he said.

Cynthia DeLucia, a teacher at the school and one of the advisers to the senior class, has appreciated being able to rely on Dittman to “make sure all the pieces fit together,” whether that means planning the senior prom, the baccalaureate Mass or the first-ever, end-of-year cookout he initiated for graduates.

“He’s a very mature, responsible person,” she said. “Sometimes, when kids get to be seniors, they get tired at the end and that senioritis kicks in. But he’s been the one person we can always count on.”

Along with his leadership skills, Jim Leone, teacher in the social justice class, has noticed Dittman’s ability to connect with all different kinds of students at the school, as well as the enthusiasm he brings to academic and extra-curricular pursuits.

Leone first got to know Dittman while chaperoning a school trip to France, Germany and Italy, then had him as a student in theology class for two years.

“He’s very energetic and willing to do whatever he can for his class,” Leone said. “And he’s very curious and interested in almost everything.”

Dittman is the third youngest and only male of the four children of Lisa and Bill Dittman Sr., who is well known in the local community as a former New London police captain and current chief of police at Mashantucket.

Bill Dittman said his son matured beyond his years during high school when he suddenly “took over as the man of the house” to help his family through his father’s illness.

The elder Dittman had a serious bout with throat cancer two years ago, a difficult episode like one the family already had been through five years earlier when Lisa Dittman had breast cancer.

“My wife and I both beat cancer,” the elder Dittman said. “Will watched out for his mother and younger sister, and helped take care of me. He grew up fast.”

Will Dittman said watching his parents battle cancer taught him an important lesson that will help guide his future.

“It made us all realize that life is a gift,” he said.

The life he treasures includes not only that of humans, but also of wildlife and wild places.

A member of the Avalonia Land Conservancy and hiker who also enjoys boating to Sandy Point and Fishers Island with his family, the younger Dittman hopes to combine his interest in the environment and in business by majoring in business management and environmental studies at Roger Williams College in Bristol, R.I.

He hopes of one day becoming a corporate sustainability officer.

Leone, his theology teacher, foresees him going further.

“In 10 years, he’ll be running his own business in renewable energy,” he predicted.

In the student art gallery at Saint Bernard hang two realistic renderings of wildlife by Dittman — one of ospreys at Barn Island, a favorite hiking spot, and another of an endangered Nassau grouper from the Bahamas, where he vacations with his family.

The works both express not only his interest in the environment, but also the artistic side of himself he discovered as a freshman.

“When I first came to Saint Bernard, I hated art. I didn’t understand it,” he said. “But Mrs. Kainz (Lorraine Kainz, his art teacher), she started a fire in me.”

He’s taken an art class all four years at the school, has become a member of the Art Honor Society and hopes to continue honing his drawing and painting skills in college.

“It’s a great skill to have, and a great de-stressor when I’m studying for exams,” he said. “I’m really into drawing nature — animals and landscapes.”

j.benson@theday.com

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