Remembering Fitz

By Jason Shandler
As I watched the crowd of several hundred pile into St. Paul's Church in Philadelphia, I found myself asking: I wonder just how many of these people Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr. actually helped? My guess was that the majority benefited in one form or another from Dixon's life.

Minutes after my pondering, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell stepped onto the alter at the memorial service and spoke about Dixon, who passed away Aug. 2, at age 82. Near the end of his remarks, Rendell said something that made me realize that not only did Dixon help all the people there to pay their final respects, but he changed the lives of scores of others who were not in attendance.

"Fitz had a greater impact than any president, governor, CEO, or public official could ever have had," Rendell said. "Tens of thousands of people were the direct beneficiaries of his generosity. Pennsylvania lost one of its finest sons in history."

And with those comments I knew just how special Dixon was.

You see, I never met Fitz Dixon personally. In fact, I am too young to remember Dixon when he owned the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1970s, which is what he is probably best known for in the City of Brotherly Love.

For me, Dixon's name was synonymous with horse racing. As the chairman of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission for many years, he played a major role in making the sport more enjoyable for everyone.

In the 1980s, Dixon was one of those who helped Philadelphia Park start Phonebet. At the time, Philly Park was one of the few racetracks around that accepted wagers by phone. Later, Dixon was instrumental in bringing off-track betting parlors, or Turf Clubs, to Philadelphia and its suburbs, once again changing the landscape of racing in the area.

Along the way, Dixon, who owned a 500-acre farm that housed hundreds of Thoroughbreds and included a one-mile racetrack on the property, contributed to many other important racing decisions. Most recently, it was his work with Gov. Rendell to help pass the slots bill in Pennsylvania that will have a huge impact on the sport. When all is said and done, slots may be looked upon as something that saved horse racing in the state.

But horse racing was only a small part of what Dixon's legacy will be.

An heir to the George D. Widener fortune, Dixon's estimated worth was around $400 million. But despite his wealth, by all accounts, the former teacher and coach was a true man of the people.

Described as a civic jack-of-all-trades, Dixon used his wealth to touch countless people. He made generous contributions to hundreds of causes, including the Police Athletic League, several universities, museums, hospitals and other health institutions, and a handful of businesses.

But Dixon did not just give away his money. He also gave his time.

He is considered the father of the Pennsylvania system of higher education; was the chairman of the Philadelphia Art Commission, a trustee for three universities, and a member of the Fairmount Park Commission, the president of the Widener Memorial Foundation in Aid of Handicapped Children; and received 17 honorary degrees.

The list could go on and on. He was on so many boards and commissions that many pages would be needed to list them all. At his memorial service, someone said that to be on just one of those boards would be an honor. Dixon was on dozens.

He is considered one of the most active and renowned philanthropists and civic and community leaders that the city and state have ever known.

Dixon has been described as an extremely passionate man. But his truest passion was sports. At one time, Dixon was part or full owner of all four major pro sports teams in Philadelphia. When he bought the 76ers back in 1976, one of his first moves was to bring in a player named Julius Erving. Dr. J went on to help bring the 76ers one of only two championships in team history.

Fitz Dixon is an irreplaceable icon in Philadelphia history. His lifetime of contributions positively impacted thousands of people in many walks of life, horse racing being just one of them. His legacy will live forever.