Stephen Dixon

Nov­el­ist, cel­e­brated short story writer and re­tired Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity writ­ing pro­fes­sor, dies at 83

Baltimore Sun - - OBITUARIES - By Jac­ques Kelly

Stephen Dixon, a nov­el­ist who taught for decades at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity, died Wed­nes­day of Parkin­son’s dis­ease and pneu­mo­nia com­pli­ca­tions at Gilchrist Cen­ter Tow­son. The Rux­ton res­i­dent was 83.

“Mr. Dixon was the most pro­lific short story writer of his gen­er­a­tion, pub­lish­ing well over 600 short sto­ries in a re­mark­able ca­reer that spanned six decades and in­cluded mul­ti­ple O. Henry Awards, Push­cart Prizes, and ap­pear­ances in Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries,” said a fam­ily friend Matthew Petti, an English pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of the Dis­trict of Columbia who is writ­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of Mr. Dixon.

Mr. Petti also said that Mr. Dixon was twice nom­i­nated for the Na­tional Book Award and once for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

He also said, “He was the kind­est man you would ever want to meet. He was the kind of per­son who would spot an el­derly woman from a block away, sprint to her and help her cross a street. He took care of his wife for many years and gave his fa­ther shots for his di­a­betes. He said, ‘There was a job to do and I did it.’”

He re­called the help Mr. Dixon gave his stu­dents, “He would write pages of com­ments on their sto­ries. There was al­ways a line of stu­dents at his door.”

He was born June 6, 1936 on the Lower East Side of Man­hat­tan, the fifth of seven chil­dren whose grand­par­ents em­i­grated from the Pale of Set­tle­ment in Poland, ac­cord­ing to a fam­ily bi­og­ra­phy. He was the son of Abra­ham Ditchik, a den­tist, and his wife, Flo­rence Leder, a Broad­way dancer who be­came an in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor.

He earned a de­gree at the City Uni­ver­sity of New York and had a fel­low­ship at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity.

In his 20s he was a ra­dio re­porter who even­tu­ally worked for CBS.

“When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made his fa­mous visit to Wash­ing­ton in 1959, Dixon was among the pack of re­porters cor­doned off to one side of the Lin­coln Memo­rial,” said the Sun’s 2007 story.

“I ducked un­der the rope and ran up the steps af­ter him, ” he said. “I could have been shot. I was call­ing,P`remier Khrushchev! Premier Khrushchev!

“He turned and said, through a trans­la­tor: ‘Such a nice boy; such a nice boy. What do you want to ask me?’

“So I got a short in­ter­view. When I got back, all the other re­porters wanted to know what he said, but I had to go back to my of­fice and drop off the tape.”

Mr. Dixon had been a pro­fes­sor for 27 years in the Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity Writ­ing Sem­i­nars. He moved to Baltimore in the early 1980s and lived in Charles Vil­lage, Mount Wash­ing­ton and later on Boyce Av­enue in Rux­ton.

Jean McGarry, a Johns Hop­kins pro­fes­sor and writer, said her col­league was a “force of na­ture.”

“His love of writ­ing was only ex­ceeded by his love of fam­ily,” she said. “Steve was fiery and im­pul­sive. Widely read, he was a fierce critic…And yet, he was gen­er­ous and en­cour­ag­ing to young writ­ers and seemed to be­lieve that he could teach any­one to write well.”

Ms. McGarry also said, “Ab­sent of even a glim­mer of van­ity, Steve, ac­cord­ing to his wife, had two out­fits: in sum­mer, shorts and a tee shirt; in win­ter, sweat pants and sweat shirt. Get­ting to his desk, and his type­writer, was the ob­ject of ev­ery sin­gle day.”

Baltimore Sun writer Ernest F. Imhoff de­scribed Mr. Dixon in a 1998 story: “The most pro­lific au­thor in Baltimore, di­vides his 40 years of writ­ing into three pe­ri­ods: The Olivetti Pe­riod. The Royal Pe­riod. The Her­mes Pe­riod,” a ref­er­ence to the brands of man­ual type­writ­ers he used.

Mr. Dixon dis­liked dig­i­tal key­boards. “This feels aw­ful,” he said, when, on one oc­ca­sion, he used a com­puter.

“He was re­volted by the wishy-washy ease of the touch and never hit an­other key,” the 1998 Sun story said.

“There was noth­ing to it. Too easy. So ticky-tacky. I don’t like to work on any­thing elec­tric. I feel cre­ative on a man­ual. I love the key­board ac­tion. It’s like play­ing the pi­ano,” Mr. Dixon said.

“He wrote [his works] on man­ual type­writ­ers, his fin­gers fly­ing fast and hit­ting hard. Com­po­si­tion time is usu­ally 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., … Dixon blamed au­to­matic text checks in word pro­ces­sors for a de­cline in his stu­dents’ writ­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion. ‘My stu­dents are be­com­ing worse and worse in spell­ing and gram­mar ev­ery year. They’re just as cre­ative, but less tech­ni­cal,’” the 1998 story said.

M. Dixon had no use for voice mail. “Stu­dents talk for eight min­utes and say noth­ing and then gar­ble the re­turn phone num­ber.”

When he re­tired in 2007, the Hop­kins Eisen­hower Li­brary ex­hib­ited Mr. Dixon’s man­u­script drafts and other ar­ti­facts from his 45 years as a writer.

A 2016 Kirkus re­view char­ac­ter­ized his writ­ing as “plain­spo­ken and de­cep­tively straight­for­ward…the sort that sticks with you, be­cause it cuts to the un­cer­tainty of life.”

The re­view also said, “Dixon is a mas­ter of the mi­nor mo­ments, the dreams and the dis­ap­point­ments, that trans­fig­ure ev­ery one of us.”

He worked out daily at the Tow­son YMCA and jogged around Rux­ton. He was a vo­ra­cious reader and a veg­e­tar­ian. He made his own soups and ate a salad ev­ery night.

His wife, Anne Fry­d­man, a John Hop­kins Rus­sian stud­ies scholar, trans­la­tor and poet, died in 2009.

Sur­vivors in­clude two daugh­ters, Sophia Dixon Fry­d­man and Antonia Dixon Fry­d­man, both of Brook­lyn, N.Y.; two sis­ters, Mar­guerite Franco of New York City and Pat Dixon of Los An­ge­les; and a grand­son.

Plans for a memo­rial ser­vice were in­com­plete.

Stephen Dixon, shown here in 2007, was the win­ner of mul­ti­ple O. Henry Awards.

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