'Al the Pal': Former Sen. Alan Dixon was one of the most popular politicians in the state

News-DemocratJuly 7, 2014 

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon was known as one of the most popular politicians in the state and in his state contests he usually led all politicians in number of votes.

"Al the Pal," they called him, and "Smiling Al."

The latter came from renowned Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko in 1970, when Dixon, the Belleville native, was running for secretary of state and always smiling. Royko said it looked like Dixon had about 200 teeth and that any man who could be so happy about being secretary of state should get the job.

Dixon had a huge clipping file at the newspaper. In going through it, I came away with an impression of a guy who really loved what he did, a genuine guy who was friends with everyone.

In a 1984 newspaper story, Dixon listed his early jobs as cutting grass in the summers, shoveling snow in the winters, delivering the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, car hopping at Ricky's Beehive in Belleville for 25 cents an hour plus tips, packing tomatoes for Brooks Catsup in Collinsville, waiting on card players at the Belleville Elks Club, and selling shoes at Lerner's in downtown Belleville.

He was elected police magistrate in 1949 at age 21 and began his steady climb up the ladder of political success. He was an assistant state's attorney at age 22.

In 1950, at age 23, Dixon was elected to the Illinois Legislature to become at that time the youngest member. In his first term he already was proposing that the voting age be lowered to 18.

He served six two-year terms and then was elected state senator. He served two four-year terms before winning election as the state treasurer in 1970.

He moved from there to secretary of state in 1976.

In a 1978 profile in the News-Democrat, he said, "Some people have to feel power and flaunt it. Others wear it like a fine cloth. I know what I can do and what I can't do, and I don't need to push people around."

He was known as a peacemaker in the state Democratic Party.

He was famous for always talking.

One friend of his told of a story of Dixon walking and talking with a group of friends when he bumped into a parking meter. Dixon apologized profusely to the meter but kept on walking and talking.

During one election, some Republicans called him liberally conservative while others called him conservatively liberal. He called himself a centrist. Regardless, he was darn hard to criticize.

He had a sharp wit. He noted in 1976 that since Republicans picked Ford and Dole, they had had two four-letter words running for president and vice president.

In 1977, a layer of callouses developed on his vocal cords, which had him whispering. The problem took several months to clear up and a newspaper article noted he was becoming an expert in miming and writing very fast to explain himself. Dixon said the condition came from six straight years of campaigning at the top of his voice.

He won in a walkover in the 1986 Senate election with 65 percent of the vote. That year he was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

But newspapers around the state also noted that his vote to confirm Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice after the uproar over sexual harassment charges against Thomas hurt Dixon's image with female voters. It prompted an Illinois state senator, Carol Moseley Braun, and lawyer Albert Holfield to challenge him in the Democratic Senate primary in 1992, ending his Senate career with a primary loss to Moseley Braun.

Even in private life, he remained influential. In 1995, he was named to serve on the committee in charge of closing military bases, or BRAC. He would continue to practice law, and later would write a book and have a building named after him at Lindenwood University-Belleville.

And his family said he never stopped smiling.

Alan Dixon recalls JFK's Oct. 3, 1960, visit to Belleville

Alan Dixon funeral

Renner Funeral Home is handling arrangements. Tentative plans are for visitation from 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday and 10 to 11 a.m. Monday at Lindenwood University-Belleville. The funeral is tentatively scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at Lindenwood.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com

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