Benefactor Fitz Dixon dies at 82; Winter Harbor native donated millions

This story was published on Aug. 03, 2006 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

A Winter Harbor native and philanthropist who gave away millions of dollars to charitable organizations in eastern Maine and southeastern Pennsylvania has died.

Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr. passed away Wednesday at Abington Memorial Hospital in suburban Philadelphia, according to hospital spokeswoman Lisa Durst.

Dixon was 82 years old. The cause of death was melanoma, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on its Web site.

Dixon was the primary heir to a venerable Philadelphia family that made its fortune by providing mutton to Union troops during the Civil War and then by investing in the ensuing expansion of rail service across the region and the country.

A former owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, Dixon donated millions of dollars to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth and paid the costs of renovating military housing in Winter Harbor for civilian use after the Navy moved out of town in 2002. He donated money to the Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth and, just last month, Acadia National Park announced he had donated $50,000 toward fellowship programs at the park’s new education and research center at Schoodic Point.

Dixon was born Aug. 14, 1923, at the family’s summer estate in the exclusive Grindstone Neck section of Winter Harbor.

In Philadelphia, Dixon is best known for owning the 76ers when the team spent $6 million to acquire future Hall of Fame player Julius “Dr. J” Erving in 1976 and for making sure Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” sculpture stayed in the city instead of being moved to New York. Besides donating heavily to hospitals, educational organizations and the arts, Dixon served as a trustee on several boards, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Temple University, and Widener University, which is named after his mother’s family. He served as president of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission, on the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of Governors, and on the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission.

Though he called the Philadelphia area home, Dixon maintained a lifelong connection with the town of his birth and undertook several philanthropic causes in Winter Harbor and the surrounding area.

Dixon and his wife, Edith Dixon, donated millions of dollars to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital, including $2 million to the hospital’s expansion in 2003. When the new wing at the hospital was opened formally in 2004, Dixon pledged that whenever the hospital was ready to expand its emergency room, he also would donate another $1 million toward that project.

A clinic the hospital runs in the Hancock County village of South Gouldsboro is named after Dixon’s mother, Eleanor Widener Dixon, who in the 1950s bought the land and building on Route 186 where the clinic is located.

Doug Jones, president and CEO of the Ellsworth hospital, said Wednesday that Dixon’s importance to the facility and Down East Maine can’t be overstated. He was instrumental in the founding of the hospital in 1956 and did what he could to make sure it survived, according to Jones.

“Fitz actually covered our payroll in the first couple of years to make ends meet,” the hospital executive said.

Despite his generosity, Dixon had a strong sense of humility, Jones said, and was not one to draw attention to himself. Dixon was well connected with “captains of industry,” he said, and frequently called upon them to help support causes that were important to him. But Dixon’s closest friendships often were with people he dealt with every day, even those who worked for him.

“He certainly gives credit to people who have supported him,” Jones said. “To me, he’s been a great friend.”

In Winter Harbor, the philanthropist took on a more active role by personally funding the renovation of 80 former military housing units the town acquired when the U.S. Navy vacated its base at nearby Schoodic Point in 2002. Dixon set up a development company called Ronaele Winter Harbor LLC – Ronaele being the reverse spelling of Eleanor, his mother’s first name – to finance the costs of converting the housing units to civilian use.

Because the Navy had owned and paid all the expenses for the three local housing developments, the units did not have individual electric meters and did not have to meet local and state building code standards. Dixon paid for all the renovations at the developments, covering his costs through the eventual sales of the properties and turning over all profits from the sales to the town.

So special was Winter Harbor to Dixon that he only missed one summer in the scenic coastal town, and that was the year his parents divorced, according to Winter Harbor Town Manager Roger Barto. Dixon was in Winter Harbor earlier this summer but had returned to his home in suburban Philadelphia for tests and treatment, Barto said.

Despite his enormous wealth, Dixon seemed to fit into the community.

“He used to drive his own car through town,” Barto said. “He never put on airs; he always stopped and talked with people. He was very much at ease here. In all my dealings with him, he was tough, but fair,” Barto said. “He was on time and when he promised to do something, he did it. I don’t know what else you could ask of anybody.”

Dixon also took an interest in local places to eat. He once owned the J.M. Gerrish ice cream parlor in Winter Harbor but in 2003 sold it to another local millionaire, Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, with the requirement that the business retain both its name and its seasonally popular ice cream counter.

In 2005 he bought Le Domaine, a popular French-cuisine restaurant and inn on U.S. Route 1 in Hancock, and allowed former owner and proprietor Nicole Purslow to stay on as principal chef.

Purslow, whose parents started Le Domaine in 1946, recalled Wednesday that Dixon had been a faithful patron of the restaurant ever since she took it over in 1965 at the age of 18. She said when she first met him, he had a favorite drink she didn’t like to make, so she introduced him to a special pear brandy. To make it even more special, she served it in a very large snifter.

“We used to call it the fish bowl,” she said of the glass. “It became a standard joke and that became his usual.”

For one of his birthday parties she made the drink and, to enhance the joke, put a gold fish in the bowl.

“He had tears rolling down his face,” she said. “He loved life. He always came in the kitchen and said ‘hi’ to the waiters and waitresses, He knew all their names, what they were doing in college. He didn’t pretend to be interested; he was interested.”

Dixon, a Harvard graduate and an alumnus and former teacher at Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., was the great-grandson of Peter Arrell Brown Widener, a former Philadelphia city official who died in 1915 at the age of 80. Aside from becoming wealthy through his butcher business and rail interests, Widener is said to have helped form the American Tobacco, U.S. Steel and International Mercantile Marine companies.

When he died, Widener was worth $60 million – a sum that, according to the Consumer Price Index, is estimated to be the equivalent of $1.2 billion in today’s dollars.

Dixon’s grandfather, George Dunton Widener, and uncle, Harry Elkins Widener, died in 1912 in the infamous sinking of the Titanic which, ironically, was part of International Mercantile Marine’s White Star Line. Dixon’s grandmother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, also was on the ill-fated voyage but made it onto a life raft and was rescued. Dixon is said to have worn a ring that his grandfather owned and handed to his grandmother before the Titanic went down.

A1 for Thursday, Aug. 03, 2006

View day's stories → | Expand image →