As a state lawmaker, Roscoe Dixon served Tennessee in a manner consistent with a man who truly cared about people. His death this week at age 71 brought that shared fact easily to mind for many as they recalled him maintaining that dedication through his own ups and downs.
Dixon, a former state senator and a long-serving member of the Tennessee House of Representatives before that, died at Baptist Memorial Hospital Thursday night.
“I was with him when he passed,” said, his wife, Gloria Dixon. “I will miss him because we had such a wonderful life together. We loved each other very much, and we respected each other. I am so grateful we got a chance to say everything we needed to say before he died.”
Dixon’s circumstance of birth is actually an unusual story and a colorful yarn in the family fabric. Born on Sept. 20, 1949, in Gilmore, Arkansas, his mother was actually there just visiting when she suddenly went into labor and gave birth. After Dixon was born, the family decided to just stay a while in Gilmore.
According to his wife, Dixon was a successful insurance executive when the political bug bit him. Dixon often spoke about his admiration for then Congressman Harold Ford Sr. and Ford’s political acumen.
“When he got into politics, I told my husband, ‘Now, wait a minute, I married an insurance executive, not a politician,’” Gloria Dixon said. “But I adjusted. Many times, politics took him away from home, but we just learned to work through it.”
For 16 years (1978-94), Dixon served as a state representative. He made a successful run for the state senate in 1994, holding that seat until 2005 when he accepted the position of deputy chief administrator of Shelby County.
Then came Operation Tennessee Waltz. In May 2005, Dixon and five other state lawmakers were charged in the federal sting that involved bribes to undercover agents. Critics of the operation called it entrapment.
“Like every other couple, we had our ups and downs,” said Dixon. “Even through the good, the bad and the ugly, we had a wonderful life together. My husband loved his family. He was a family man.”
“Sen. Dixon was a good friend and a supporter when I worked as special assistant to Gov. Ned Ray McWherter,” said Mark Stansbury, long-time WDIA air personality. “When Roscoe was incarcerated, we communicated often. As a matter of fact, he said I was a ‘true friend.’ He said, ‘Mark, you are one of a few who still communicates with me.’”
Stansbury and Dixon exchanged letters monthly.
“I still have some of them,” Stansbury said. “Upon his release, my wife, Imogene, and I hosted dinner in our home for Roscoe and Gloria. It was memorable.”
After his release from prison, Dixon went to work with the Cocaine Alcohol Awareness Program (CAAP), a residential treatment center for addicts. Albert Richardson remembers Dixon’s work at the center with admiration.
“From the day he left prison, Roscoe came to work with us,” said Richardson. “He was a blessing to the clients, he was a blessing to their families. Roscoe was a greater blessing to us than we ever were to him. He was a counselor, our public relations man. He did many things here. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Roscoe.”
Richardson said Dixon worked with CAAP “seven or eight,” years, only retiring in late 2019 when his health began to fail. Richardson said Dixon “loved politics,” but even more than that, “he loved people.”
“Roscoe’s unfortunate incarceration had nothing to do with the wonderful work he did,” said Richarson. “He loved working for the underserved, and he was genuinely concerned about people. I think that’s how he should be remembered.”
The Dixons had no children, but, said Gloria Dixon, her husband was a “father” to many.
“We never had children of our own,” she said. “It wasn’t that we didn’t want children. It just never quite worked out that way. But, my husband loved children and young people. All of our nieces and nephews loved him. Roscoe was a mentor and a father for many.”
Gloria Dixon said she would like for Dixon to be remembered as funny and loving – a genuinely “nice guy.”
“I would just say to people that you should do all you can for those you love while you can,” she said. “You never know what’s going to happen. People are here one day and gone the next. I will miss my husband, but we were good to each other. We had a wonderful life together.”
The Tennessee Democratic Caucus and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators acknowledged and mourned the death of Dixon, who also served as the chairman of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Health Committee before leaving office in 2005.
The Senate Democratic Caucus issued a joint statement:
“Just as he served his country in the Army and his state in the Tennessee Army National Guard, Dixon was deeply committed to serving his community. Sen. Dixon had kindness and duty in his heart. We wish his family and loved ones peace at this time.”
House Minority Leader Karen Camper said Sen. Dixon was a mentor to her: “I learned from him here in the Legislature and from when we both served on the Memphis NAACP board. Roscoe Dixon was dedicated to community service and was a consummate servant to the people. He will be missed.”
TBCSL Chair Antonio Parkinson said, “While I never had the opportunity to serve with Senator Dixon, I knew Roscoe as a warm, encouraging man. I felt his love for my generation of leaders as he always made it a point to let me know how proud he was of me, as a result, I always felt energized in his presence.”
Rep. Barbara Cooper said Dixon was always active. He organized a group he called his kitchen cabinet of Memphians working to better the community.
“We were very close. He was always available and accessible to everyone. He was a fine man who loved his work and he was loved for it.”
Representatives Joe Towns and Larry Miller both joined the legislature in 1995 and served alongside Dixon.
Towns called Dixon both a rival and a friend.
“He was a totally committed person to his community, especially the Black community,” Towns said. “I remember him working long hours in his office until 10 or 11 o’clock at night … working to improve the plight of Black Memphians. He leaves behind a fantastic legacy of service.”
Miller said, “Senator Dixon was one of the most impactful Senators in the history of Tennessee politics. Our sincere condolences go out to his family.”
Final arrangements are still pending.