Standing on the shoulders of many

From Peoplestown to the People’s Mayor, Evelyn Wynn-Dixon’s journey proves there’s no such thing as too late

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Standing on the shoulders of many

Evelyn Wynn-Dixon is serving her second term as mayor of Riverdale. She also works part time at a hospice. “I don’t know what it is not to work,” she says. “I’ve been working since I was a little girl.”

From her office on the second floor of city hall, Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon has a bird’s eye view of the rest of the Town Center complex. To the left is the Riverdale Centre for the Arts, Business & Leisure Services—kids call it the spaceship because of its gently sloping, domed roof. To the right is a public plaza and amphitheater used for gatherings like the city’s Seafood & Beer Festival, held Labor Day weekend.

The $18.5-million complex was built during Wynn-Dixon’s first term as mayor of Riverdale. It opened in 2010, with the government-civic buildings serving as the first phase of a three-part project planned for the 27-plus acre parcel of land. Future growth will incorporate a mixed-use commercial component as well as residential housing.

From her vantage point, Wynn-Dixon (MSW ’95) can see the people of Riverdale arrive for city-sponsored events like concerts and free movies in the park (popcorn included). They also come for classes like Cardio Boot Camp and Nutrition 101. And they come to rent space in the Centre, which has a variety of facilities—meeting rooms, event halls, an entertainment lounge and a dance studio among others.

The view from her office window is very different from the view she faced early in 1974. Then, evicted from her home and a single mother with four kids to support, Wynn-Dixon stood on the Pryor Street bridge, looking out over I-75. She was preparing to jump.

After finishing her bachelor’s degree at Georgia State University, Wynn-Dixon started going back to church and renewed her faith. “Every day is a good day,” she says. “As long as we’re on this side of Jordan, it’s a good day.”

A life-altering decision

Evelyn Wynn-Dixon grew up in Peoplestown, a historically black Atlanta community south of Turner Field and central Atlanta. She was the eldest of seven siblings born to Grover W. Favors and the late Sarah Dorsey Favors. Her Cherokee mother was “drop dead gorgeous,” Wynn-Dixon says. As a child she got caught charging a nickel to let the neighborhood kids touch her mother’s hair, which led to a whipping from her father.

Segregation was still the norm, but Wynn-Dixon remembers her childhood fondly. They were always busy—reading, doing chores or playing baseball. Kids came over to sit on the front stoop and listen to Motown music. Greats like Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte and Della Reese brought their shows to Atlanta. The Favors family attended church every Sunday and could sleep on the porch at night without fear. In the spring they went to the farmers market for fresh fruits and vegetables and made homemade ice cream to put on pound cake. People, church and family were the priorities.

“It was just awesome. We were happy,” she says. “We were poor, but we were happy.”

Wynn-Dixon attended Price High School and was known for being smart. Nicknamed Professor, she was expected to do well, perhaps become a doctor. She earned a scholarship to Fort Valley State University and got engaged. She was the first in her family to attend college, and her future seemed bright. But shortly after starting college, Wynn-Dixon became pregnant.

“Because I wanted to be accepted and loved, I went against my principles,” she says. “I went against everything I knew was right.”

She came home in shame, with the knowledge that she had let down those who cared about her. Later she learned that her fiance had fathered a baby with her best friend. In 1968, at the age of 19—and unwed—Wynn-Dixon gave birth to son William. Six weeks later, her mother died.

Rock bottom

Standing on the Pryor Street bridge, Wynn-Dixon considered her options. She believed that her life was over, and she was counting on an insurance policy that she thought would benefit her children. This moment of crisis came after six years of hard times.

After her mother died, Grover Favors rallied the kids and “showed us what family really meant,” Wynn-Dixon says. Along with taking care of William, she tried to help her father raise her brothers and sisters. Her grandmother taught her to cook.

“Girl, the first biscuit I made would’ve knocked that wall down!” she says. “Oh my God, it was pure lead.”

Eventually her father remarried, and she married her friend George Wynn so that William would have a legitimate last name.

“That’s when my life turned to horror,” she says. “But it was really the beginning of my future.”

Wynn-Dixon and her husband had three more children—George, Demetrius and Maria. The family struggled, moving often to escape unpaid bills. Baby Maria had a medical condition that required treatment, and Wynn-Dixon would get up at 2:30 in the morning to walk with Maria to an 8 a.m. appointment at Scottish Rite Hospital on Clifton Road. When Maria was four weeks old, Wynn-Dixon’s husband left (they later divorced).

With no money, Wynn-Dixon was cutting up sheets for diapers and washing clothes by hand in the bathtub. Her landlord held off eviction for a few weeks, but eventually they were turned out. Rain ruined their few possessions so with only the clothes on their backs, Wynn-Dixon and the kids moved in with her sister, Gardenia. Not long after that, she was standing on the Pryor Street bridge. As she looked out over I-75, she noticed a large truck coming and found that she just couldn’t jump.

“God looks out for drunks, babies and fools,” she says. “And I was about to be a fool.”

Wynn-Dixon had realized that she didn’t want to die, but she still didn’t know how to solve her problems. She prayed and asked God for guidance, and the answer she heard was in her mother’s voice. It said, “Education is the way.”

Wynn-Dixon was a senior at Price High School when this portrait was taken in 1967.

One red dress

In 1995 Wynn-Dixon put on a cap and gown and posed for a photo in Sanford Stadium with William and George. She was graduating from UGA with a master’s degree in social work, but she wasn’t the first in her immediate family. William and George had attended UGA on football scholarships and had already earned degrees.

“My experiences at UGA with my sons and myself are lifelong wonderful experiences,” she says. “That was a great part of my life.”

But before she enrolled at UGA, Wynn-Dixon had an uphill climb. After her epiphany on the Pryor Street bridge she graduated from Bryman School of Nursing and began working for a doctor, cleaning houses on the side to help make ends meet. The family moved into their own apartment, but it was infested with rats and roaches. Wynn-Dixon could hear the rats and would stay up all night to make sure they didn’t bite the baby. Eventually her father and grandfather got rid of the pests. She continued her education at Atlanta Metropolitan College, earning an A.S. in social work/philosophy, and then went on to Georgia State University for a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Life wasn’t easy as a single mother trying to further her education. Wynn-Dixon often walked from Georgia State to Cleveland Avenue, which took two-and-a-half hours. One of her professors noticed that she wasn’t eating and began bringing her lunch. Wynn-Dixon was on welfare, but she was determined to achieve her goals.

“I used the system to get off the system,” she says.

The family pulled together, with William (BSEd ’91) watching the other kids after football practice so that Wynn-Dixon could work at night. Neighbors kept an eye on them and ran extension cords to her apartment when her power was cut off. Although they didn’t have much, George (AB ’92, MEd ’96) remembers having fun.

Wynn-Dixon receives her employee of the year award while working as a case manager in neurology and gerontology at Grady Hospital in Atlanta. She won the award three years in a row.

“We had some of our best times when we had the least,” he says. “I didn’t realize we were poor until I went to college, because she did such a good job.”

And Wynn-Dixon was proud of her Bulldog sons. When George intercepted the ball in a game against Alabama, she ran the length of Sanford Stadium as he ran on the field. For her first UGA-Florida game, Wynn-Dixon packed a cooler with fried chicken, potato salad, bologna and Kool-Aid, driving from Atlanta on a tank of gas, with $20 for gas money to get back home. She and the younger kids slept in the car and washed up at the bus station before heading to the game. A UGA alumnus offered a hotel room for the kids, but Wynn-Dixon wanted them to learn that no one owes you anything.

“Man don’t work don’t eat,” she told them.

“The whole time they were at Georgia I had one red dress, and I bought a little bulldog [pin] that you could snap on the front of your dress. I wore that to every game, and I told people it was my good luck dress for the ’Dogs,” she says, and takes a long pause before continuing quietly.

“But it was all that I had.”

William and George had already graduated from UGA when their mother decided to pursue a master’s degree. She’d been a Georgia fan before her sons attended UGA—thanks to Herschel Walker—and their positive experiences made it an easy choice. She was already working at a nursing home, but she saw many job opportunities in her field that required a master’s, and she wanted to see if she could do it.

“I was really showing my children can’t nobody stop you but you,” she says. “And I wanted to see how far I really could go.”

She continued working nights at the nursing home and drove to Athens three days a week to attend classes.

“I still didn’t have a lot of money, and I used to ride down there on air and wonder how I’m going to get back,” she says. “But I made it. That’s the bottom line.”

Her children provided inspiration.

“I knew what I had to do, and I couldn’t get on a pity party,” she says.

“They kept me going when I cried, [and] when I screamed. They understood that I wanted the best for them, and they never really complained. That was my backbone—my children.”

A family photo shows Wynn-Dixon (in blue) with her children. From left, George, William, Demetrius and Maria. In front is Maria’s son Kali. Right: Maria and Kali, one of Wynn-Dixon’s seven grandchildren.

“Dude, you for real?”

Evelyn Wynn-Dixon’s office is full of two things—photos and awards. There are photos of her with celebrities like pro basketball player Kobe Bryant, but most of the framed images include her four children and seven grandchildren. Trophies and plaques—Clayton County Chamber of Commerce 2011 Business Woman of the Year, Trail Blazer Award from Newtown Florist Club, among others—cover every surface and the wall behind her desk. Also on that wall is a framed letter from former UGA Coach Vince Dooley, remembering William and George fondly and congratulating her on being elected mayor.

After graduating from UGA, Wynn-Dixon worked as a case manager at Grady Hospital, where she was employee of the year three years in a row. In 2003 she moved to Riverdale, where she still works part time at a hospice. She hadn’t planned on running for office, but a friend dreamed Wynn-Dixon was in politics and then her pastor told her he had a vision that she was mayor of Riverdale. Trusting that there was a divine reason for their visions, Wynn-Dixon dipped into her savings and won her first election, taking office in 2008. Commonly known as the People’s Mayor or the Mama of Riverdale, she ran unopposed in her second election.

Since she took office Riverdale’s crime rate is down 20 percent. The city has experienced economic growth and enjoyed a budget surplus that was achieved without layoffs or raising taxes, despite the recession. This feat got Wynn-Dixon invited to speak about Riverdale’s success at a 2010 White House special meeting of an agriculture committee.

“My thing is, because you live south of Atlanta, who says you have to live in squalor?” she says.

 

Last year Gov. Nathan Deal appointed her to the state’s Transit Governance Task Force. Later he called to ask if she’d join the board of directors of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

“Dude, you for real?” she asked, before agreeing to serve.

George Wynn understands that it took a lot of initiative for his mother to go back to school while raising four children. Despite everything, they had a ball as a family, he says.

“She an angel. I don’t think they make them like that anymore,” he says. “I think they might have thrown away the mold.”

But Wynn-Dixon prefers to give the credit to others, starting with her father and siblings and continuing with her children.

“I am standing on the shoulders of so many,” she says.

“I tell my kids we had a lot of hard times, but from those hard times we’ve survived, and we’re able to help others now.”

 

Supporting today’s students

When Evelyn Wynn-Dixon dropped out of college in 1967, there were few resources to help her get back in school. These days a student in her situation has more options. About 40 percent of students in the University System of Georgia (USG) and the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) previously would have been classified as nontraditional, says Lynne Weisenbach, USG vice chancellor for educational access and success.

“Large numbers of our students balance jobs, family and college at the same time.”

Gov. Nathan Deal’s Complete College Georgia initiative addresses this complexity by offering more online courses and flexible scheduling—including weekends. Clearly delineated career paths give students a better understanding of their choices, and online tools give them 24/7 access. Increased cooperation between USG and TCSG makes it easier for students to move more efficiently between institutions.

In the late 1960s, 75 percent of jobs required only a high school diploma. By 2020, about 60 percent of jobs will require some postsecondary education, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“What we know is that to drive economic development, you need a well-educated workforce,” Weisenbach says. “It’s that simple.”

For more information, visit http://www.usg.edu/educational_access/complete_college_georgia.