Hundreds gather to remember the 'Gentleman from Illinois'

News-DemocratJuly 14, 2014 

More than 300 of "Al's pals" attended former United States senator Alan Dixon's funeral Monday morning in Belleville.

Federal, state and local politicians swapped stories with Dixon's golf buddies and people who worked for and with him through the years, many of them wearing Dixon campaign buttons. There were a few tears, but a lot more laughs. And that's how those who remembered him knew Dixon would have wanted it.

The former senator from Belleville, who began his political career in 1949 as a magistrate, died July 6 at the age of 86 after an illness.

U.S Sen. Dick Durbin, a fellow Democrat, spoke along with former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican, and Dixon's former chief of staff, Gene Callahan.

Durbin, who arrived at the funeral carrying a copy of Dixon's book, "The Gentleman from Illinois," said bi-partisan cooperation and making friends were what Dixon was all about. He said Dixon was so well thought of at the time he left the Senate that political polar opposites Ted Kennedy, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat, and Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina conservative Republican, both came to tell him good-bye at the same time. Opposite ends of the political spectrum showing equal respect for the outgoing legislator.

While some thought that his re-election loss in 1992 was the low point in his life, Durbin said it may have actually been one of Dixon's finest moments.

On the verge of losing for the first time in his lengthy political career, Durbin said Dixon's political consultant told him he needed to run negative attack ads against competitor Carol Moseley Braun if he wanted to win the Democratic Party primary in March of 1992. Dixon refused to play dirty politics, choosing to lose rather than compromise his principles.

"If the people of Illinois dump me, I'll pick myself up, dust myself off and say thanks for the memories." Durbin quoted Dixon as saying, Then, Durbin said, Dixon got up and left the meeting and never looked back.

Sen. Dixon's son, Jeff Dixon, tearfully remembered his dad telling him the day after the 1992 election loss that there was no reason to dwell on it or complain about it. Tomorrow is another day, the younger Dixon remembered his father told him.

There were many cheerful stories told about Dixon as well.

Durbin, Callahan and Jeff Dixon remembered the former senator's love of having a cold Budweiser with friends at what he referred to as "saloons" or "watering holes" or while watching the St. Louis Cardinals play baseball. And they remembered how much he loved helping people. Dixon especially relished helping the "little guy," they recalled.

Callahan remembered Dixon always told staff members that they didn't work for him. "He wouldn't let us say that," Callahan said. "He said we worked for the people of Illinois, just like he did."

Thompson remembered Dixon as a deal maker who had a way of making people see common ground. He said he doesn't know if heaven needs someone to settle arguments and find compromise. But he said he knew, if it did, that Dixon was on the way there to straighten things out.

Patriotic songs and Frank Sinatra tunes played as mourners arrived Monday morning at the funeral for Dixon, who died July 6 at the age of 86, a day before his birthday.

In the Lindenwood University Welcome Center, before the doors opened to the auditorium, pictures of Dixon though the years with his political colleagues and friends from both sides of the aisle were displayed. They included U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), President George H. W. Bush, U.S. Rep. Mel Price, U.S. Rep Jerry Costello and even an early shot of him with President John F. Kennedy during Kennedy's campaign visit to Belleville in 1960.

Nunn had planned to be at the funeral Monday, he said in a note read to attendees. While he couldn't attend in person, Nunn said he shared in the sense of loss of a great statesman.

Both former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello and Georgia Costello, president of Southwestern Illinois College were in attendance. Georgia Costello said she was shocked to hear Ken Gray died days after Dixon. "That's about the last of the old guard," she said.

Gray was a U.S. representative from Southern Illinois for many years coinciding with the time Dixon was a senator.

Former Illinois state senator and U.S. congressman Glenn Poshard was also at the funeral. He recently retired as president of the Southern Illinois University system.

Dixon's body was in an open casket with an American flag draped over half of the lid that was unopened. His casket was placed in the orchestra pit at the Lindenwood University auditorium, previously Belleville Township High School where Dixon, his mother and his children all got their secondary education. On the stage a pianist played a grand piano and flower arrangements lined the stage from end to end.

The crowd watched in silence as members of Dixon's family including his wife, children and grandchildren embraced in front of the casket. The casket was then closed and the American flag pulled over the entire coffin.

Dixon is survived by his wife Joan "Jody" Dixon, and three children, Stephanie (Doug) Yearian, of Waterloo; Jeffrey (Stacy) Dixon, of Chicago, and Elizabeth (Stuart) Megaw, of Fairfax, Va. He is also survived by eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

A private burial was held following the funeral service at Lakeview Memorial Gardens in Fairview Heights.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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