James Dixon: The making of an Iowa maestro

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While walking through the Voxman Building, the home of the School of Music at the University of Iowa, I paused at a lecture hall door with a plaque commemorating James Dixon.

Those acquainted with the university’s splendid music program would know of Dixon’s 40 years as its symphony orchestra conductor, his professional reputation that extended far beyond the borders of Iowa, and his close association with Dimitri Mitropoulos, the famed conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Those attending Jim’s memorial service after his passing in 2007 could read a program listing a full page of his honors, including 34 years as conductor of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra.

But there is a less known beginning to the story of James Dixon’s rise to pre-eminence as a conductor. It is a Horatio Alger story of a deprived youth overcoming adversity. It is a story reflecting the proverb of requiring a village to raise a child. It is an Iowa story, and I was there.

Jim Dixon and I grew up in Guthrie Center. He occupied the first chair in the trumpet section of the school band while I, several years younger, sat at the tail end. I knew of Jim’s day-to-day existence, but little of his parentage, a hushed topic in our hometown. As an adult, however, I learned he was born out of wedlock in 1928 and adopted by Frank and Mae Dixon. Jim never knew the name of his biological father, and by the time he discovered the identity of his biological mother many years later, she had passed away.

The Dixons lived a hard life during the Great Depression of the 1930s, quite literally on the “other side of the tracks.” Their paintless shanty, half the size of nearby box cars, sat between a spur track of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and the local sale barn stockyard.

Frank Dixon struggled to support his family as a day laborer. Work was scarce and his wife in bad health. In January of 1936, when Jim was in second grade, Mae died of pneumonia.

Virgil Hunt, 89, now a resident of Monticello, recalls that cold winter day when Miss Beck, their second-grade teacher, was called to the classroom door for a whispered exchange with the school secretary. Their teacher took Jimmy aside and informed him he must go straight home because of a family emergency. She then whispered in Virgil’s ear, “Jimmy has lost his mother. I want you to walk home with him so he won’t be alone.”

The two little boys walked down the Prairie Street hill from the grade school to the Dixon shanty near the railroad tracks. Not a word was spoken. Virgil knew of the nature of the family emergency. Jimmy only knew of the severe illness of his mother. His tears revealed he suspected the worst.

Jimmy had lost two mothers before his eighth birthday: the birth mother he never knew and his adoptive mother who died of bronchial pneumonia at age 39.

The village of Guthrie Center responded quickly to the plight of Jimmy Dixon. J.R. Compton, the school band director, gave the little boy a small, plastic flute known as a “Tonette,” provided him with free music lessons, and enrolled him in a children’s band. Jim Dixon’s musical career had its beginning with J.R. Compton as his first mentor — something Dixon acknowledged with gratitude for the rest of his life.

After an introductory period on the Tonette, Compton recognized the unusual talent of his young pupil and presented Jim with a more sophisticated instrument, a used trumpet.

Music practice, a chore to most children, became a delight to Jim. His trumpet could be heard all hours of the day among the bellowing cattle and chugging trains of his neighborhood. In sixth grade he became a member of the high school band, and a few years later the first chair trumpet player.

Although music became a dominant element in Jim Dixon’s life, everyday necessities required money his father lacked. Sam Raymer, a local barber, helped the Dixon finances when he gave Jim a job shining shoes as he entered fifth grade.

A few years later Lloyd Ferguson offered a better paying job at his bakery. Jim reported for duty at 4 a.m. every day but Sunday. On school days, he went straight from Ferguson’s Bakery to the high school band room for the 8:30 rehearsals with J.R. Compton.

World War II raged during Jim’s high school years. When President Truman announced the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, Americans rejoiced.

In Guthrie Center horns honked, the town whistle blew for several minutes, and classes were dismissed so students could join in the celebration.

An impromptu concert took place in the high school gym, but without the direction of J.R. Compton, who was out of town. At a moment’s notice, the 16-year-old Jim Dixon took the baton and led the band in a series of patriotic songs, from “You’re a Grand Old Flag” to “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” His ambition to become a conductor had begun.

J.R. Compton occasionally took his pupils to concerts at the KRNT Theater in Des Moines or clinics on the campuses of Drake University and Iowa State University. On one such occasion, Jim Dixon observed Dimitri Mitropoulos, then the director of the Minneapolis Symphony, conduct a concert. That evening became one of irony as the enthralled young Dixon met Mitropoulos and, after an interruption of several years, developed a lifelong relationship, first as a protégé of the renowned conductor and later as a professional associate.

Music and conducting were on the mind of Jim Dixon when he graduated from Guthrie Center High School in 1946, but without the means for pursuing his dream. He worked at Ferguson’s Bakery, engaged in a short-term farming venture, and played in the community band. J.R. Compton and fellow teachers Jean Safely and Cecil Kilgore encouraged Jim to further his education, perhaps offering needed financial support.

In the fall of 1948, Jim Dixon left his bakery job, traveled aboard the Corn Belt Rocket train to Iowa City, and enrolled at the University of Iowa as a student of musical direction. After his graduation in 1952 and conducting positions in the U.S. Army, the New England School of Music and the Minneapolis Symphony, Dixon returned to his alma mater as conductor of the university’s symphony orchestra in 1962.

Despite numerous offers from other universities and symphonies across the country, James Dixon chose to remain at the University of Iowa and in Iowa City for the rest of his life.

In retirement he enjoyed baking, as he had learned many years ago at Ferguson’s Bakery, and relaxing on the porch of his large Victorian home on College Street — a dramatic contrast to the railroad yard shanty of his youth.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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