Remembering Dr. Shirley Walker Dixon

By Alexandra Monteiro
December 5, 2019

On Thursday, Nov. 28, trustee Shirley Walker Dixon passed away with her family by her side in Philadelphia. Looked at as a faculty leader and champion for students, Dixon inspired fellow friends and faculty. They saw her as a jack of all trades and a trailblazer. 

Dr. Shirley Walker Dixon at graduate commencement 2018. Photo by Cabrini Univerity Flickr

Dixon’s accomplishments

Dixon had a life well-lived. Full of education, relationships and integrity, Dixon was a force to be reckoned with. 

In 1990, Dixon became the first African American to join Cabrini’s board of trustees. 

During her time at Cabrini, Dixon had the unique distinction of being a student, professor, faculty member and Board of Trustees member.  She was the first student at Cabrini University to graduate with a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership. It was her third degree from Cabrini’s education department. 

Before coming to Cabrini, Dixon worked at the Philadelphia Housing Authority for 20 years before switching careers to teach education.

 Her passion for education was evident to all who encountered her. It was the driving force behind her actions.  She became the first African American principal at Girard College Elementary. 

On a remembrance page dedicated to Dixon on the university home page, there was a time when “after witnessing students drinking tainted water, she petitioned the United Nations (UN) to make clean drinking water a global human right, helping to move it up on the organizations’ list of top priorities. In 2008, China opened its criminal justice system to outsiders for the first time, and Dixon was there, discussing the legal system with Chinese judges and attorneys”

During 2018, Inaugural Shirley Dixon Celebration of Urban Education Symposium,’ President Donald Taylor said to Dixon, “You had a vision and then you built momentum behind that. You’re making a real difference in the lives of children every single day. I can think of no more noble calling than that.”

Shirley Dixon at the Shirley Dixon Celebration of Urban Education Symposium. Photo by Cabrini University Flickr

How she will be remembered 

The passing of Dixon has friends and faculty still in shock. They noted it feels a lot emptier without her. Faculty recall just days before having lunch and seeing Dr. Dixon as her regular charismatic self.  

As faculty and staff reminisce in their times with Dixon, there were only positive thoughts and memories. She was described as a leader by all who knew her.

“She was viewed as the ‘jack of all trades’; she was like a mother, sister and drill instructor all in one. She was a trailblazer, someone who never gave up and never took “no” as an answer. She was a woman who did everything in a first,” Charles Spencer, director of international and military recruitment, said. Spencer had known Dixon for 22 years as she was his professor for her seminar class. 

“Of course being my teacher she also really pushed me to make sure I was going to obtain a master’s degree because she told me back then if I wanted to stay in higher education, a bachelor’s degree would be like a high school diploma equivalency,” Spencer said. Dixon was the type to push people to strive for the best that they can be. Spencer is just one example of the many people she impacted. 

“She loved engaging and learning about people. She’s truly blessed to live the life she did. Everyone admired her, she had such a loving spirit. We will continue on and live out Dr. Dixon’s legacy,” Colleen Lelli, associate professor of education, said. Lelli knew Dixon for 17 years as they worked in the education department together. 

“She always kept it 100. She was a faculty leader who was well admired. She was the ‘Mary Poppins” of education. Dixon cared deeply about different issues; she was the champion of diversity,” said Catherine Yungman, professor Emerita in communications. Yungman was also a very close colleague and friend to Dixon.

“Everyone knew everybody and everybody knew her. She always treated people with the same kindness and respect. She was dedicated to her students. She had a good heart and fine mind; she could put those together really well,” Dr. Margaret McGuinness, former chair and professor in the religion department, said. McGuiness had known Dixon for 20 years and they were very good friends. 

Although friends and faculty said the passing of Dixon is difficult, they will continue on and live out her legacy. Her kindness and dedication went a long way for the Cabrini community and they will continue to remember how much she was dedicated to her amiability.

“It’s going to be hard for a lot of us for a very long time but we will continue on at Cabrini and we will live out not just Mother Cabrini’s legacy but now we will live out Shirley Dixon’s legacy,” Dr. Colleen Lelli said.

The viewing has been scheduled for 9 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 6, with funeral service following at 11 a.m in Philadelphia. A full obituary can be found on the Philadelphia Inquirer site.

Dixon with colleagues at graduate commencement in May 2018. Photo by Cabrini University Flickr

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Alexandra Monteiro

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