Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Remembering Larry Dixon

It was a high school science teacher's  nightmare.

Larry Dixon was working with a group of students on the latest class project and a persistent young man was not willing to wait his turn.

"Mr. Dixon, I need your help," the sandy-haired young man said, tapping him on the shoulder.

"Hold on a second, Travis," I'm busy helping J. J.," Mr. Dixon, at the time a veteran of two decades in the classroom, told the young man.

Only a few seconds passed before Travis said, "I really need help, Mr. Dixon."

"I'm really helping J. J."

After a brief interlude, Travis approached Mr. Dixon from behind, leaned over and spoke quietly. "O. K. then, I'm now placing one drop of hydrochloric acid on your neck."

It was a sight the student Mr. Dixon was helping, J. J. Huckin, has never forgotten, though nearly a quarter of a century has passed.

"(Travis) used a medicine dropper to squeeze some water on (Mr. Dixon's) neck and he sprung up like a cat five feet into the air and yelled like a wild banshee."

At that moment, Huckin watched a wave of anger cross Mr. Dixon's face.

Travis, cowering in the corner, cried, "It's only water. It's only water, I swear!

Huckin remembered thinking that he and his classmates would have loved it if their teacher had flushed Travis' head down the toilet and told him it was only water, but as quickly as the anger had hit Mr. Dixon, it was gone.

Travis was spared.

But it added to the legend of a teacher whose presence brightened the hallways of Lockwood High School for 35 years, a teacher whose influence led to a school nestled in a community of less than 1,000 to have far more than its share of doctors, scientists, and science teachers, all of whom give credit to Larry Dixon for the influence he has had on their lives.

Many of those students shared their stories with their favorite teacher during the last few weeks of Mr. Dixon's life as a man who had been such a vital part of the everyday fabric of Lockwood, not only as a classroom teacher, but as a member of the library and park boards, a scorekeeper at the high school volleyball matches, and the architect of the most attractive gardens in the community (foregoing Miracle-Gro and mixing his own fertilizer), deteriorated rapidly due to multiple inoperable brain tumors that eventually ended his life one week ago.

It wasn't just the doctors and scientists who flourished in Mr. Dixon's classes. The tall, broad-shouldered teddy bear of a man had a way of connecting science with students' everyday lives.

Some of that was done through tales from Mr. Dixon's earlier job at Eagle Picher in Joplin where he worked as a power systems engineer, helping develop batteries for the space shuttle and missile battery systems for the Department of Defense and stories from his time serving his country in Vietnam. His hands on projects, ranging from bug collections to throwing a bucket of dry ice down the hallway, provided memories that remain as clear as if they had happened yesterday.

Mr. Dixon and his wife, Melinda, who was a teacher and counselor at Lockwood High School for nearly four decades, helped put the school on the map long before its string of state basketball titles in the '90s, with their championship scholar bowl teams.

Starting with a set of buzzers that Mr. Dixon built from scratch, the Dixons fielded high school academic teams that blew away the competition for year after year long before the Missouri High School Activities Association sanctioned scholar bowl as a competition and then made numerous trips to the Final Four after the state began holding the tournaments.

The team's success was such that even during the height of the Lockwood basketball frenzy of the '90s, Coach Dennis Cornish paid his respect to the level of achievement the scholars had brought to the school, by giving his team's top scorer, 6-6 center J. J. Huckin, permission to attend the scholar bowl meets instead of practice and working with the Dixons to create a schedule that would allow Huckin to practice for both teams.

Though his former students paid their last tributes to Larry Dixon during the final weeks of his life, many of them shared their memories two years earlier when the Dixons were named grand marshals of the annual Lockwood September Days Parade.

A former student and later a fellow Lockwood teacher, Amy Schnelle, collected letters and testimonials from other former students and colleagues in a scrapbook, which was presented to the Dixons following the parade.

It was a labor of love for Schnelle.

"When I was in high school I dreaded taking science classes because I knew how hard he was so it wasn't until after high school that I really appreciated all that he had taught me," Schnelle said. "When I came back to Lockwood four years later as a teacher, he was one of the first to congratulate me and offer any help so there were times I had to ask him some science-related questions from my first graders."
During the awards ceremony that included the presentation of scrapbook, the Dixons also heard personal testimonials from former students. The experience had a powerful impact on Larry Dixon, which he shared a few days later on his Facebook page:

To hear from so many former students concerning our influence on their lives was incredible to me. I had always assumed that our influence might reach to their sophomore year of college but that we would then fade from most of their memories. 

To find that we have apparently had that much impact on so many lives was unexpected and scary. I am proud of all of the success that our former students have achieved and dared to hope that we had some small effect. This was unexpected. We have just been given a huge bonus in "coin of the heart". We will treasure it for the rest of our lives.

1 comment:

Michelle Brooks said...

Thank you.