When I ask Tom Dixon, the first CEO of the Tacoma Urban League and a man who led the organization for more than three decades, to describe his life, he leans back in his chair.
Then he harkens back to his father.
“My father was a country doctor in Sparta, Georgia,” Dixon, 85, told me from the Tacoma Urban League office he helped build so many years ago. “And from our house to the school house was three miles. He drove his five children to the schoolhouse every day of school. And he never passed a walking student.”
“Some days we would end up at the school house with 12 or 14 students,” Dixon continued. “My brother and I would sit on the bumper, or on the fender, but my father never passed a walking student.”
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It quickly became clear that the story was a metaphor for the way Dixon has led his life.
And a fitting one.
My father never passed a walking student.
“That does really describe who Tom Dixon has been. He never wants to leave anybody sitting on the side of the road,” Urban League President and CEO Victoria Woodards added.
“He picks up as many people as he can, and influences and changes lives in whatever way he can along the way,” she told me. “I think it’s pretty descriptive of who he is and who he has been.”
Honoring who Tom Dixon is — and who he has been for Tacoma — was the reason longtime friends and Tacoma civil rights contemporaries packed into a small room at the Tacoma Housing Authority’s Dixon Village on Wednesday.
Named in honor of the Tacoma Urban League’s inaugural executive director in 1995, Dixon Village — a 32-unit duplex development in South Tacoma — is in the midst of a $4.1 million renovation, part of a $36 million construction effort that will renovate nine of Tacoma Housing Authority’s properties.
The effort is part of an $80 million “complicated refinancing” plan that Executive Director Michael Mirra says will allow the authority to “attend to the capital needs for the next 15 to 20 years.”
Having seen the new windows, siding, roofing and landscaping at Dixon Village firsthand, I can say the message delivered in this work is clear: The city’s housing authority values its residents.
But, in truth, Wednesday’s festivities at Dixon Village — deemed a “rededication,” complete with ceremonial ribbon cutting — were about much more than that.
They were about honoring a truly great man while he’s still around to experience it.
“Every now and then, we get lucky as a community, when there’s somebody who adopts us who has decided to do his life work in one place, and Tom did that for the city of Tacoma,” Lyle Quasim, co-chairman of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, told me. “He basically dedicated to issues of equality, equity and diversity in the city of Tacoma.
“Tom is the real deal, man.”
Every now and then, we get lucky as a community, when there’s somebody who adopts us who has decided to do his life work in one place, and Tom did that for the city of Tacoma.
Lyle Quasim, co-chairman of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective
A list of Dixon’s accomplishments in his adopted home of Tacoma would be long, and any I might offer would surely have glaring omissions. Still, Dixon’s body of work includes helping to secure a Model Cities planning grant for Hilltop in the 1960s and his long tenure with the Urban League, where he fondly remembers helping to bring “roughly $100 million to Tacoma,” during his 32-year career with the organization.
“I’m very proud of that,” he said.
Dixon, along with contemporaries like Tacoma’s first black mayor, Harold Moss, and the city’s first black city manager, Jim Walton, is credited with helping to defuse the Mother’s Day disturbance of 1969, and helping to usher in the reconciliation that ensued, which included greater representation in City Hall and greater services for African-American communities.
“His style of working with people was one of his greatest strengths and also speaks to who he is as person,” said Sam Chandler, who first met Dixon while working for Congressman Norm Dicks.
Chandler, an educator who now teaches Advanced Placement and senior English at Stadium High School, is helping Dixon write a memoir.
“At his core, (Dixon) has always wanted to help people,” he said.
For Woodards, who got her start working under Dixon at the Urban League and went on to assume the position he first held, it’s in people where Dixon’s biggest impact can be seen, even today.
And it’s in the programs the Urban League championed under Dixon to help lift Tacomans up, from employment services, to education, to health care and parent training.
“I don’t necessarily see a building, or a place, when I see the impact that Tom Dixon has had. I wake up every morning, and I look in the mirror, and I’m another story of Thomas Dixon. I think that’s where his legacy is,” said Woodards.
“I just don’t think people understand the everyday lives that the Urban League has touched, because of Tom Dixon.”
I just don’t think people understand the everyday lives that the Urban League has touched, because of Tom Dixon.
Tacoma Urban League president and CEO Victoria Woodards
Dixon, just like his father, never left anyone behind.
And that’s why the ceremony Wednesday at the THA development that bears his name, and will for many years to come, was so fitting.
“Tom is of the generation that did the heavy lifting, that brought Tacoma into the civil rights era,” Mirra said. “He and his generational colleagues came to Tacoma at a time when that was not an easy time or place to be for a black American, especially one with ambitions to live a full civic life. That generation is now passing, and it was pleasing to have the chance to thank them before they pass.”
Or, as the man of the hour put it to me: “What THA did was to help Thomas Dixon be permanent in Tacoma and Pierce County, long after he’s gone to the red dirt of Georgia.”