'Eighty-five Years Feels Younger Than Ever'
By Nancy Peters - February 21 2008
In December 2007, Walt Dixon celebrated his 85th birthday surrounded by his closest friends. His party was given at a home of friends he counts as two of his five best friends. When he had his annual physical for his pilot's license renewal about three years ago, his doctor told him he was as healthy as any 25 year old.
'So I asked him why I can't still do all the same things I did at 25,' said Dixon with his trademark hearty laugh, 'and he told me there is just so much you can do to certain parts of your body. And don't I know it!' laughing so hard his bright and twinkling blue eyes were tearing up from the laughter.
This familiar figure around Hawthorne, visibly present at most events and meetings, is so much a fixture in town that City officials call him to see if he is feeling all right when he doesn't show up. Part of Walt Dixon's fondest memories of his upbringing include being friends with your neighbors and being a resident of Hawthorne for 84 of his 85 years, Dixon knows why the city adopted the motto 'City of Good Neighbors.'
His father Joe and mother Bertha moved to Inglewood when they married and had their only child Walt in 1922. The elder Mr Dixon was in the oil drilling business and the family followed the first oil wells to most communities in the area. In 1923, when the first oil well was drilled in what is known today as Lawndale, the Dixons moved from Inglewood to Hawthorne. They lived in different places over the next ten years, and when Walt was ready for Kindergarten and began to attend school, it was quite a few years before the family settled down for good. Between Kindergarten and 6th grade, Walt attended 13 different elementary schools.
Wiseburn Grammar School (known today as R H Dana Middle School) was where Walt was able to make friendships and the family moved to the house which Walt remembers best at 136th Street and Shoup Avenue. It was during the Great Depression and the Dixons were living under the same monetary constraints as most people in the country. But it was in 1933 that Joe Dixon and his wife and son were sitting around the table on a Friday that Walt recalls with clarity.
'It was our evening meal. We always ate our meals together and Mother was getting ready to clean up the table. That's when my father said, 'Let's take a little trip this weekend. Pack up the car with our tent and some clothes and see where the road takes us,' recalled Dixon. 'Well, three months and 10,000 miles later, we had driven to Texas to see some cousins; gone to New Orleans; visited North Carolina and the East Coast. Traveled up to D.C., saw the Smithsonian Institution, on to New York, Vermont, Niagra Falls and up through Canada, to Detroit and back home to California through a lot of other states.
'That trip was just great. The gas cost about thirty-five cents to fill the tank of my father's 1929 Model 'A' Ford. I learned to drive in that car when I was 9 years old! My mother kept a journal of that trip and I still have it at home. Some meals cost seventy-two cents. It didn't cost anything to pitch your tent in parks, or we stayed in these cabin camps that were $1.00 a night which was expensive back then. I had a great childhood,' Dixon continued.
'My parents took me everywhere with them. I went on gambling ships in Long Beach Harbor because they fed you for free on the ships and kids were allowed aboard, so it only cost fifteen cents for the three of us to take the water taxi to the ships and then have a free meal. We did that a lot. My mother was very resourceful.' and there was that characteristic laugh again.
His father took him for his first airplane ride when Walt was only three years old. Plus, his father's brother lived with the family and kept his glider plane in their back yard. He would take his nephew Walter to Kelly Field at the corner of Inglewood Avenue and Broadway Avenue to fly the glider along with his friends who flew stunt planes for the movies. Walt was hooked on airplanes from the beginning.
When Walter Dixon graduated from Leuzinger High School in 1941, he already knew what he wanted to do for his life's work. During high school, Walt had taken his bicycle to Gardena Valley Airport and worked for the pilots in exchange for flight hours so he could get a pilot's license. In June 1940, his first license to fly alone was granted and Walt tried to describe the feeling.
'Well, if you can think of the first time you did the most exciting and stimulating thing in your life,' winking his eye, 'now multiply it by about 100 and that is what it is like to fly your own plane. I loved it! I graduated from high school and started attending Compton College, but then I heard about the United States Navy beginning this new task of ferrying airplanes from Alameda Air Station to San Diego, so I joined the Navy in September 1941. Best thing I ever did too, ' remembered this patriot.
Walter Dixon served his country for nearly six years by the time he got his honorable discharge. He recalls the morning he heard the call as he was flying, 'This is not a drill. All pilots man your stations and wait for orders.' That was on Sunday December 7th 1941. And for the next few years, Dixon flew planes to places he had never imagined and performed duties he had only seen in World War I movies. He flew bombers in the European Theatre during World War II.
After returning to civilian life, Walter and his beautiful wife Florence lived in Hawthorne. Walt started his own business using his flying expertise as the basis. He delivered airplanes for the private sector all over the world. He traveled 300 days a year and visited many exotic places. But he preferred being at home with his wife and two sons.
Soon, Walter Dixon became a jack-of-all-trades, and, as he says, a master of none. He worked for the gas company, in oil fields, ran a diaper service and opened a coin store. All the while, he and Florence continued their community service. Walter and Florence Dixon were involved with the Kiwanis Club, the Hawthorne Parade, Home Fair and Queen Contest.
It was through the involvement in this annual event that Walt Dixon appeared on local television with commentator Bill Walsh as KTLA-TV televised the second largest parade. There were vendor booths and a contest to select The Queen. The parade was legendary and various clubs and entities were chosen to appear and fought for their spaces.
'We raised between $40,000 to $45,000 each year for various children's charities, the Boys' and Girls' Clubs, underpriviliged children, March of Dimes, etc.,' noted Dixon. 'We had celebrity Grand Marshals and many celebrities who rode in the parade. Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay were friends of mine. Her daughter Mary Ellen used to have meals with us at the old Cockatoo Inn. The little girl grew up and is 'Mariska' now. I don't know how much she knows about her ties to Hawthorne.'
Those were good times and things were very different in the world back then. But we always gave back to the community. We probably spent 20 to 40 hours a week at Kiwanis events or helping with something with the city of Hawthorne. But for a while, I stepped away,' Dixon said with a glimmer of sadness showing on his face.
Walter married Florence and they enjoyed 46 years of wedded bliss with only one argument that Walt can think of. They raised two sons, one of whom is now deceased. His son Larry is in construction and Dixon has two grandsons, Russell and Robert, all of whom he is proud of. Robert followed in his father's footsteps and Russell is a career member of the United States Army, 101st Airborne Division and one of the first to walk into Baghdad, Iraq at the beginning of this recent conflict. A major with the army, Russell and his wife Sherri brought the latest joy into Walt's life in the form of his great-granddaughter Rachel Gail who is a talkative and beautiful two year old.
Walt Dixon also was an avid photographer back in the day, ever since 1938 when he received his first camera, an Argus C-3. He always had that camera around his neck from the first day his parents gave him that birthday gift. He took photos that appeared in his high school yearbook. He took photos that were in the local newspapers. Most of his photos were developed in Walt's own home on a self-built enlarger with a lens he ground himself.
Photos of Hawthorne as it was in 1938 and moving forward, recording the history taking place on the boulevard and on side streets; photos of events, of parades, of people. His camera, recording many of the changes in the landscape of the city and area, became a source of living history. It was years later that Larry Guidi, who used to hang out in the last shop Walt Dixon ran on Hawthorne Boulevard, recalled the many photos that hung in the photography store where Dixon sold his cameras, film and other photography equipment, as well as developed photos.
'In a chance meeting at a local restaurant, Larry invited me to sit with him as he was dining alone. He was interested in the history of Hawthorne. What better way to see the progress of the city than through the old photos? Before I knew it, I was the City's Historian. I had free access to the city archives in the bowels of City Hall. I used to show photos at every City Council meeting. It was a regular feature. Then, I was approached by publishing company to write a book about Hawthorne's history.
'That took three years, but in June 2005, I was proud of its publication. I sold close to 300 books on my own, and it is in bookstores in the area and still in print. That was a lot of work, but it was fun coming across a photo where I'd see my old car from 1940 or and old hangout I'd remember from my younger days. I know the world can now know how important a contribution Hawthorne made to the South Bay and what a strong history we have,' reminisced Dixon.
Dixon hopes that someday there will be a museum in Hawthorne where all the photos can be displayed, all the memorabilia can be marked and given its proper showcase as a piece of Hawthorne History. Mostly, he'd like to get stuff out of his house and garage he teases, when asked about the memorabilia he has collected and labeled and archived.
In his spare time, Walt Dixon enjoys backpacking as often as possible. He still flies the airplane he operates with his flying partner, Les Dermott, one of his best friends. He goes to the gym three mornings a week where he meets up with Chris and Linda Nanji and many other friends he has made since joining the gym after his near fatal heart attack in 1991.
'I found out dying ain't all that bad since I was gone for about three minutes until they revived me. I changed my diet and began exercising. I had bypass surgery where they took an artery from my leg. Now, I'm as good as almost new. That gym saved my life. And it is also a source of part of my social life. Before that I was a couch potato. TV and just sitting around was my way of life for quite a few years. I ate out all the time, except during those times when women who thought I had money, would invite me over for dinner! That was always a hoot when they found out. What they might have overheard was my warped sense of humor,' Dixon laughed out loud again. 'But it was nice to have those home cooked meals for a while.'
'I also value my friendship with Penny and Dick Hobart. The friends I have around me now are wonderful people. I enjoy coming by City Hall and talking to all my friends at the city. I enjoy the City Council meetings, the events I attend, the people I know. It makes for a full life for an old codger like me.'
Walt was a figure skating dancer for about 10 years in the 1970s where he met Peggy Fleming and danced with her. He knew Michelle Kwan when she was a little girl starting out on the rink. He was a member of and served as president of the South Bay Figure Skating Club.
During one of his myriad jobs, Dixon managed the State Motor Pool at Los Angeles International Airport, giving out cars to state officials who came into the airport. He met governors, state assemblymen, senators, chief justices, and Congressmen and Congresswomen. He made some lifelong friends through the experience as well as meeting Norma Zimmer, made famous by her appearances on 'The Lawrence Welk Show' and Bobby Burgess, one of the original Mouseketeers.
'You know, I have no complaints about my life, then or now. I have had great experiences. I live every minute to its fullest. I have longevity in my family. My grandfather lived to be 94, my father died at 91 and Mother left this earth at the age of 93. So I have this goal I intend to accomplish.'
'I want to be the last standing veteran of World War II. There are still three million of us alive, but 1800 die every day. I figure that I have 20 more years in this body and I know if I keep feeling as good as I do now, I'll make it. I don't have too many other wishes in life. So many of my old friends have died. People I knew in Hollywood. People I knew in the service. We just lost Paul Tibbets, a great American hero, and one of my dear friends.'
'I hope that young people today realize that all the stuff they are collecting, the gadgets and the goods, are not a true sign of success. I'd want them to know that being true to yourself and your friends and cherishing them is most important My grandfather said, 'When you die and you can count on three true friends, you have been successful.' I think I have achieved that, but by the time the next 20 years go by, I don't know how many of them will be left,' he concluded, still laughing, his bright blue eyes twinkling and his sense of humor still charming the world.
Walt Dixon is not just The Historian of Hawthorne, or Dad to Larry, or Grandpa to Russell, Sheri, Robert and Little Rachel. He is a piece of history of Hawthorne and the link to the past for his family. A past he lived filled with love, traditions, patriotism, travels, and interesting friendships and connections woven into a patchwork quilt of memories and good times.
Joe and Bertha Dixon raised up their only child Walter to be a legacy all on his own!