Robert Dixie Sr. enlisted in the Army prepared to serve in the Cold War or the Vietnam War.
Instead, he unexpectedly ended up doing battle in Army boxing rings and achieving glory by winning championship bouts.
“I didn’t even know the Army had boxing when I enlisted,” the 74-year-old Dixie said. “I had enlisted because you could control when you would leave for the military. They had the draft and if you were drafted, you had to leave when they said you had to leave.”
Enlisting, he explained, provided him with enough time to box in the Western New York Golden Gloves competition in Buffalo. The Emerson Vocational High School graduate had punched his way to prominence starting as a 12-year-old in the Spruce Street Police Athletic League.
His enlistment strategy worked. Dixie won the 1963 Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship.
After that, he took off his boxing gloves and picked up an Army rifle.
At Fort Sill, Okla., while preparing for his transfer to a Pershing missile outfit in Germany, Dixie stopped by the fort’s gym. A boxing ring surprised him.
“There were some guys sparring in the ring. Some were hitting the speed bag and others were jumping rope. I walked over and asked if it was possible to do any of this. They said this was for the boxing team.”
But the team’s coach had an idea. He would allow Dixie the privilege of sparring with Fort Sill’s lightweight champ.
“He didn’t have anyone to spar with the champ. That was because he was pretty good and nobody wanted to spar with him. They wanted to use me so the champ would get a good workout at my expense.”
* * *
Robert Dixie Sr., 74
Rank: Private 1st class
War zone: Vietnam Era veteran
Years of service: March 1963 – March 1965
Most prominent honors: Outstanding Vietnam Era Veteran Award with commendation; 1964 Fourth Army Light Welterweight Champ; member of the All-Army Boxing Team 1964
Specialty: Teletype tape relay and cryptographer
* * *
After the first round, the coach and team members realized the champ was outclassed by Dixie.
“At first they thought I was a pro boxer. We sat down and talked and I told them I had just won the Golden Gloves in Western New York. They were shocked and wanted to know why I hadn’t tried out for the boxing team. I said, ‘I didn’t even know you had a boxing team.’ “
The coach immediately began recruiting him.
“He told me to go to my company commander and ask him if I could try out. I went to the commander and he flatly refused. He said soldiers are committed to military duty and not jock straps,” Dixie recalled.
But Dixie loved boxing and would work out with the team in his spare time. When he was invited to participate in a boxing match at Fort Hood, Texas, he obtained a weekend pass and returned to Fort Sill victorious, beating a former Fourth Army champion.
His commander read about it in the Fort Sill newspaper — and was unimpressed.
“The commander was fuming because I had boxed. He said, ‘You disobeyed my order.’ I said, ‘I didn’t. I did it on my own time,’ ” Dixie said of the exchange. “Then the commander made it official and said, ‘You will not box. You are a soldier.’ “
Dixie followed orders and after a week of failing to show up at the gym, the boxing coach stopped by to see him.
“I told the coach the company commander would not allow me to box and the coach said he would take care of it.”
A few days later, the commander summoned Dixie to his office.
“The commander had gotten orders to release me to box. He acknowledged that the military was not all about war and what I was doing was just as important for the support and morale of our troops. He told me he had no idea of how good I was and was very supportive after that. He was proud that I was in his company.”
Dixie went undefeated and won the Fourth Army Light Welterweight Championship. No one could lay a glove on him when it came to success in the ring. But beyond the ring, there was a big ugly opponent. He and other black soldiers suffered the South’s racism.
Citing one of the indignities the all-black boxing team members experienced, he recalled a trip to Fort Polk, La., to participate in a boxing tournament.
“We were on a military bus and in our green military fatigues. We pulled up to a restaurant and when they saw us getting out, they locked the restaurant’s door and turned around the ‘closed,’ sign,” he said.
Ironically this happened at a time when the civil rights movement was advancing.
“To have on a uniform and representing this country and knowing that others wearing the uniform were dying, it very much upset me the way we were treated,” Dixie said. “I can never forget that.”
Inside the ring, it was a different story. Dixie eventually qualified to participate in the U.S. Olympic trials for the boxing team. The chance at winning a gold medal seemed within reach. All he had to do was keep winning, but tragedy landed a blow back home in Buffalo.
Joseph Dixie Sr., his father, died at the age of 47.
“My two weeks of bereavement leave took me out of the boxing tournaments. All I had to do was miss one and that was it. But there was no way I was going to miss my father’s funeral. My family was tight and my father was always supportive,” Dixie said.
And speaking of men who had a positive influence on him, Dixie also credited the late Thomas H. Stenhouse, who served in the famed World War II all-black Tuskegee Airmen unit, boxed professionally and retired as a Buffalo industrial arts technology teacher.
“I met Mr. Stenhouse at the Spruce Street Police Athletic League when I was about 12 years old,” Dixie said. “He was like my second father. He taught boxing like a science.”
After the military, Dixie found work as a recreational therapist assistant at the Hissom Memorial Center, a rehabilitation facility for mentally and physically impaired children in Oklahoma. The facility was the first integrated center of its kind in the Southwest.
Dixie later returned to Buffalo and worked for nine years in the employment division of the state Department of Labor. He then moved to Rochester and worked for the Urban League as director of its law enforcement minority manpower project, which recruited and trained minorities for careers in criminal justice.
In 1979, two years after earning a bachelor’s degree at Empire State College, Dixie was appointed director of social services for public housing in Rochester and Monroe County. He had gotten the appointment after scoring 100 on a civil service test.
That same year, President Jimmy Carter awarded him the “1979 Outstanding Vietnam Era Veteran Award” in the Rochester area.
“It was given to me by an official from Washington, D.C.,” Dixie said.
Married for 47 years to the former Audrey Whitaker of Buffalo, Dixie and his wife raised three children, Detrius, Robert Jr. and Keturah. Dixie calls them his “Rochester family.”
And while he has lived there many years, Dixie says he frequently visits his “Buffalo family.” Three sons, Andre, Mark and Kevin, were born here. He also takes pride in mentioning that he has a godson who has done well — the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, who also serves as Buffalo Common Council president.
And he has his buddies, other high school athletes, with whom he stays in close contact. They include Lum Smith, Carl Bess and Billy Robinson.
“They keep me abreast of all that’s going on in Buffalo,” he said.
© 2018 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.