Chancellor Steve Ballard gets some words of advice from Phil Dixon during a recent trustees meeting.
Attorney Privilege Grateful for what ECU made him, Phil Dixon
gives back with his advocacy and advice
By Steve Row
don’t have to bleed purple and gold to become a lawyer in Phillip Dixon’s office. But you’d better have a Pirate sheepskin. The three other attorneys in the Greenville firm of Dixon Conner Allen & Garcia are all ECU graduates because that’s the way the senior partner wants it. It’s one way Dixon ’71 shows his loyalty to his alma mater.
He’s demonstrated that loyalty countless times by donating many hours of his time to serving the university, including stints on the Board of Visitors and the Board of Trustees. Currently he’s one of only three ECU graduates on the UNC System Board of Governors.
What motivates him so deeply to continue serving ECU? He says it’s because the university changed his life so dramatically after he arrived on campus in 1967 from the town of Wake Forest, the son of a broken family experiencing severe economic pain.
“We were really poor. We lived on a dirt road next to railroad tracks,” Dixon remembers. “My dad was a handyman at Wake Forest College when it was in Wake Forest, and after the college moved in 1955, our two movie theaters closed, our grocery store closed. And yet we bought a house because he had saved some money.”
The college’s move to Winston-Salem disrupted the town and the Dixon household. Dixon’s father wanted to relocate with the college to Winston-Salem but his mother didn’t, so his parents separated when Dixon was 9. The family soon moved to Raleigh, where Dixon received his first exposure—indirectly—to East Carolina, as a junior high and high school student.
“My [high school] teachers and coaches were East Carolina College graduates. I remember that one coach who was from East Carolina, Lynn Bower, took me to my first college football game, and my English teacher had a son who went to ECC to play football. In ninth grade, I was 6-feet-2 and 185 pounds, and she started me thinking about going to college and maybe playing sports,” he says.
Dixon’s mother wanted him to go to work after leaving high school, but he had other ideas. “I filled out all the applications by myself. I was accepted, and I came here.” Excited to be here
|'Why did I stay so close to ECU? I could never pay them back. I had never had a steak, never had real spaghetti, never had so many vegetables. I went to the travel film series, the summer theater here. They gave me a life. I came here with low self-esteem, poor as a church mouse, and I went through such a metamorphosis. Plus, it was interesting.' |
Carrying a “beat-up suitcase I got at W.T. Grant,” Dixon was so excited about going to college that he arrived on the Greenville campus a day before he was supposed to, and the only other student he encountered was someone from the Bahamas, “and he was freezing in August.”
The handyman’s son did well at East Carolina, “probably better than most people thought I would. I made something like a 3.94 [GPA] my first year. When I was in school, I was so worried about flunking out that I probably worked too hard,” he laughs.
Dixon majored in business administration, although he initially thought he would go into teaching or coaching after college. But he also took a business law course, and the idea of being a lawyer interested him.
He was elected vice president of the Student Government Association his junior year, where he learned to debate rules and defend his positions. He set his sights on law school at UNC Chapel Hill and got accepted. There, he attracted enough attention to receive an invitation from the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill to serve a summer internship as one of 25 students statewide who would work in various state agencies. Dixon applied and was assigned to the state Supreme Court, working in antitrust research. At the end of the summer he wrote an article, “A Study of Looseleaf and Pocketpart Supplementation of Law Books,” that was published in an American Bar Association Student Lawyer Journal.
During his three years of law school at Carolina, Dixon edited and wrote articles and editorials for the North Carolina Law Record, at the suggestion of the law school dean (whose name, interestingly enough, was Dixon Phillips). In his second year, he worked for then-Attorney General Robert Morgan ’47, and as he was finishing law school, he interviewed for a position with Judge Naomi Morris on the N.C. Court of Appeals.
“The first thing she said to me was, ‘I don’t think much of your school. Doesn’t everyone refer to it as ‘EZTC’?’
“I told her that I had a wonderful experience at ECU, and all my professors were quite good. She reared back and laughed and said, ‘You’re hired.’” Dixon says Morris proved to be a great teacher, especially because she had a master’s degree in English and was a stickler for clear writing. Educating the law
After clerking for Morris for a year while living in Raleigh, he returned to Greenville in 1975 to work at a local law firm. Three years later he organized his own firm and developed a special interest in education law. A friend who was a local school board member asked Dixon if he would be the school board’s attorney.
That was nearly 30 years ago, and Dixon has served continuously as school board attorney for either Greenville city or Pitt County schools. He also has served as attorney for Washington County schools for more than 12 years and has provided legal services to 18 other school systems.
Dixon also represents Pitt and Martin community colleges and has represented Carteret, Bladen and Halifax community colleges as well as the College of the Albemarle. At the state level, he has represented the N.C. Association of Community College Trustees. He is a former chairman of the N.C. Council of School Attorneys and the Education Law Section of the North Carolina Bar Association. Dixon’s firm also specializes in municipal and utilities law and works in business and real estate as well as estate planning and administration.
Currently, his firm’s other lawyers are Ernest L. Conner Jr. ’84, W. Lee Allen III ’89 and Adrian A. Garcia ’02. Dixon says he expects two of his sons to join the firm one day soon. Phil Jr. is finishing his law degree at N.C. Central University, and Scott, an ECU junior, plans to enter law school after graduation. Middle son David chose an entirely different field and now plays guitar for the beach music group the Embers.
‘Very driven and organized’
|SGA committee chairs for 1970 were (seated) Paul Breitman; second row, left to right, Ada Sanford and Katie Houwze; third row, left to right, Robert Adams and Phil Dixon |
Colleagues and classmates describe Dixon as one of the hardest-working people on the planet. Jim Hicks ’71, a classmate and fraternity brother who also roomed with Dixon for a year in Raleigh, says Dixon always was “very driven, organized, active and a hard worker. When we were living in Raleigh, while he was clerking at the Court of Appeals, he was president of the Wake County ECU alumni chapter. They might not have had a president like that before—he was organizing trips and events, and the chapter grew to some good size. I remember he even organized a trip to the zoo in Asheboro.
“But he was that way in school, too,” adds Hicks, a senior vice president and trust officer at U.S. Trust Bank of America Private Wealth Management in Greensboro.
“Phil Dixon is the hardest-working man I’ve ever known,” says Randy Doub ’77, a former law partner and now U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina. “He gives everything 110 percent, and if he takes on a project, you can bet the ranch it will be done perfectly.
“He is also one of the finest men I’ve ever known,” Doub adds. “He hired me as a summer law clerk in 1977, and I went with the firm in 1980, so we practiced law together for almost 26 years. I know him as an excellent attorney, always prepared.”
Carl Joyner ’71, says Dixon “can’t say no. He always runs at 90 mph, and he’s been such a great friend to his university, his employees, his family and his community.” Joyner, senior financial advisor and trust officer at Old North State Trust LLC in Greenville, had classes with Dixon and is a fellow Phi Sigma Pi fraternity brother. He says Dixon always has had “a great charismatic personality. He’s a very sociable individual and always had great wit. He never lacks for a great story to tell, and he always makes you feel good about yourself.”
Dixon’s passion for ECU is evident to those who know him. “Probably next to his love of family and God, his love for the university is boundless. He’s been such an attribute to the university in his service—he loves anything purple and gold,” Joyner says.
Doub says Dixon has been a “rabid ECU Pirates fan” his whole life. He remembers many years ago when Dixon started an organization called the Order of the Crow, which referred to the crow’s nest of a pirate ship and to a Greenville restaurant called the Crow’s Nest. “We’d meet for lunch every Friday and have the chicken special and talk about Pirate athletics. He took the initiative to have special certificates printed up for members. I have one framed in my office right now,” Doub says.
An all-round Pirate
But Dixon is more than just a sports fan. He is a former chairman of the ECU Board of Trustees and former president of the East Carolina Alumni Association, and he received the 2006 Distinguished Alumni Service award. He has been chairman of the Pitt Community College Board of Trustees and has served as president of the Greenville Museum of Art and chairman of the Pitt-Greenville Chamber of Commerce.
“He is very committed to the [Greenville] community and to the ECU community,” Doub says. “He’s served in about every organization that exists in Greenville, and he’s served in leadership roles. He does all these things selflessly, and he puts his whole heart and soul into that vision of where ECU ought to go. He doesn’t play golf, and he doesn’t seem to have any real hobbies other than community service.”
“That’s what I do for fun,” Dixon says. “I want to be a big-brother type. I go to the hospital once or twice a week, helping with wills and powers of attorney.”
He also has been on the receiving end of community outreach—when his wife, Mamie, was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. “I can’t tell you how many people helped us. They came out of the woodwork,” he recalls. “My most profoundly satisfying experience has been working for the United Way, after seeing so many agencies come to our assistance.”
He and Mamie met as students at East Carolina. She completed a bachelor of music degree in 1974 and a master’s in 1976. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in November. She teaches yoga classes at the ECU Student Recreation Center.
Dixon was named to the UNC Board of Governors in 2005, where he has been able to take his loyalty to ECU to a larger arena. East Carolina’s enrollment growth in recent years has made the university more of a player in state higher education circles, and Dixon wants to be “sort of a conscience” to remind other board members about ECU’s rising stature.
“We’re not the runt of the litter. We have a place at the table. We have the best distance education program, we produce more teachers and more health professionals. And kids who come here from poorer areas just flower,” he says. “But we have to do a lot on our own.”
His passion for ECU draws praise from Chancellor Steve Ballard, who calls Dixon “an indefatigable supporter of ECU whose energy, historical perspective and commitment make him an excellent member of the Board of Governors and a true friend of ECU.”
Ballard foresees Dixon becoming “a champion for the ‘new ECU,’ as portrayed in our strategic plan. That is, ECU leads the state in the service mission and has also grown to a place where we have the respect of the higher education community and can expect the necessary resources to fuel our vision and mission.”
“Why did I stay so close to ECU? I could never pay them back,” Dixon muses. “I had never had a steak, never had real spaghetti, never had so many vegetables. I went to the travel film series, the summer theater here. They gave me a life. I came here with low self-esteem, poor as a church mouse, and I went through such a metamorphosis. Plus, it was interesting.”
Dixon knows about ECU’s position in this part of the state: “ECU has become a unique university in some respects. The region identifies with the campus, and ECU identifies with the region. This is a university that offers some hope to people with disadvantages.”
Maybe like a handyman’s son from Wake Forest. ‘Be willing to pay the price’
Here are Phil Dixon’s “Rules to Live By,” which he shared with graduates as the speaker at the winter 2005 ceremonies:
1. Be willing to pay the price
. You graduates have already invested four or more years as a down payment, while some of your former high school classmates decided to spend these past four or more years elsewhere beginning their careers. Today most of them are already earning what they can expect to earn for the rest of their lives. Don’t throw that down payment you have made away.
2. Be self-disciplined
. Discipline is simply control. If you don’t control yourself, someone else will, or no one else will. Either case will be less desirable than self-control.
3. Set some goals
. “Winners” in this world expect to win in advance. Life for them becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Choice, not chance, determines destiny.
4. Learn to get along with others
. Studies confirm over and over again that people do not lose their jobs because they don’t have the technical know-how and the requisite skills. Most frequently, they simply cannot get along with other people.
5. Be a dreamer
. We need more people in the workplace saying “why not?”
6. Take risks
. Don’t be afraid to fail.
7. Stay informed
. Wealth was once measured in gold. Now it is measured in what we know.
8. Be ethical
. Right has been, and always will be, right.
9. Have some fun
. Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.
10. Define success in your own terms
. Some people spend their lives climbing the ladder of success only to find that when they get to the top, the ladder is leaning against the wrong building. Decide what you want.