Mil Dixon – November 19, 1997
Bob Brundage – Well, hi again. It’s Bob Brundage and today is November the 19th, 1997 and we’re in the big town – what town is this now?
Mil Dixon – This is Reading.
BB – This is Reading Massachusetts, right and today we’re talking to Mil Dixon who has been around a couple of years…
MD – A few years.
BB – …a few years here and there and a little bit later on we’ll be talking to Anna Dixon. So Mil, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what life was like before you got into square dancing. Some of your family background and things like that.
MD – OK. I put together a few thoughts – maybe more than a few Bob, I don’t know, but I’ve always been involved in leadership roles. In college I was President of the Student Council at Boston University – College of Liberal Arts – and got an AB and an AM. The AM was in 1950. During that time I knew Anna well, before the time – I knew Anna as young person, but paid no attention to her because she was six years younger than I. To make a long story short, she asked me to go to a New Year’s Eve Ball being sponsored by a local Catholic college. I agreed to do her a favor, and wound up marrying her in 1951.
BB – Uh oh.
MD – 1951. It’s been a long time. I became President of the Teachers’ Association at the second school at which I taught – Science and Math – and in the six years at Manchester-By-The-Sea in Massachusetts we had four children. I was asked by the principal to go to Midland Park, New Jersey, to head up the Math and Science Department. It was a new school just being built and being opened that next September. There was a 40% increase in salary, but little did I know that I had to spend the summer writing the curriculum for each course area.
BB – Laughs.
MD- While there, Anna and I had two more children to round out our half dozen. My next job was in Mahwah, New Jersey where I was hired as Assistant Principal of a 1200 student school – and, once again, little did I know until after accepting the job, that my duties would also include being part-time truant officer, summer school director, and football concession manager in addition to being the major disciplinarian. At my first meeting of all the school principals, I spoke up and said something. The superintendent looked at me from the other end of the table and said, “By the way Dixon, where are you working next year?” I learned quite a lesson – keep my mouth shut until I know what’s going on. We moved next to Canton, Connecticut where I was principal of a Jr.-Sr. High School with thirty-five staff members. There my responsibility was to evaluate each one’s performance with a minimum of two classroom visits and conferences following. Of course, I was in charge of discipline with no assistant. In the fall of 1967, we moved to our present home. We’ve been here now 30 years in Reading, Massachusetts. Anna had been born in North Cambridge and I was born in Billerica – both in Massachusetts. It was like coming home and once again being close to our families. Now, at Winchester High School I was teaching Biology and became President of the Education Association. I was one of three teachers that negotiated the first teacher contract in Winchester. We had some twenty-six sessions with the school committee and, of course, many night meetings and more meetings with the staff to know what we were doing and going ahead. I’ve always put myself into selected activities and joined professional organizations. I am now a life member of the Massachusetts Teacher’s Association, the National Science Teacher’s Association, and also the National Education Association. So I moved myself into all different kinds of things.
BB – Yes, you did.
MD – Now for the music aspect. I played piano and had a six-piece orchestra while I was in college for about a year and a half. The five others, including my brother, were in high school at the time. We played school dances, and it was called Sonny Dixon’s Orchestra. How about that?
BB – Laughs.
MD – When we arrived in Reading in 1967, I was planning to join the local Barbershop Quartet groups. It was not to be. Once again, Anna saw a newspaper ad for the local Checkmates Square Dance Club. This was an opportunity for us to go out together and meet people. Little did I know what was ahead. I enjoyed it so much Anna had arranged for a birthday party for me the next February 1st in 1968. Only five months into the activity, my present from her was two square dance calling lessons – and she paid for them – with our teacher/caller, Art Nurse. I was hooked. I continued on for the next year and a half with some twenty-six evening sessions with Art at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts – about an hour’s drive away, and there were six of us in the class. We had a test each evening and the one person with the poorest result having trouble finding his corner had to take home the banner. The banner read, “Sell Your Equipment”.
BB – Laughs.
MD – Art is no longer with us, but he certainly set the example for professionalism. Let them dance. Always dress the part. Be on time, and treat one or forty squares alike.
BB – Right.
MD – Well, as far as calling is concerned, I attended caller’s school with Earl Johnston and Al Brundage and later with Dick Leger’s school on timing. A great start. I started out with a group of older boys – about fifteen or sixteen of them – a fraternal group – as an activity. Our older son was one of them. They each invited a girl to dance once a week, and we had three squares. This evolved through time until the Reading Recreation Committee allowed us to use a school cafeteria. They became known as the Checknights, the junior group of the Checkmates groups that Anna and I belonged to, and we became President in 1971. They moved us fast as officers as time went along and that was after going through all of the chairs – Secretary, etc. This was my entry to calling, and I have taught classes for some twenty-five years working with five teen clubs early on and then with three adult clubs following that. We were very involved with starting the banner-raiding or visitation system here in Massachusetts – in eastern Massachusetts. We are full member of Callerlab since 1976 and, professionally, we have been very involved going through the chairs to be President of the Tri-State Callers Association – President in 1976, 1977 and as delegates from the North Of Boston Callers Association, a traditional callers’ group, to NECCA, the New England Council of Callers’ Associations. We became Treasurer in 1975, Secretary in 1977, Vice-Chairman in 1980, and finally Chairman for two years beginning in 1982 – So, 1982-1983 and 1983-1984. We continued to be involved as Scholarship Chairman for NECCA for four years from 1999 to1994, and during that time NECCA put out some $4500.00 in scholarships to get new callers started. We have also been delegates to the CO-OP Committee for many years. The Co-OPeration Committee is made up of caller delegates from NECCA, dancer delegates from EDSARDA, Eastern District Square and Round Dance Association, and cuer delegates from NECORTA, the New England Council of Round Dance Teachers Associations. The CO-OP Committee is unique in New England, where all three facets of dance activity get together to work out mutual concerns. In addition, I cue Phase Two and Three Rounds, and belong to the area round dance leadership association known as ACCORD. I also served as Recording Secretary for the Square Dance Foundation of New England for several years. On the civic scene, as a member of the Board of Directors, I have been the volunteer Secretary/Treasurer for the Winchester Federal Credit Union for over ten years and also act as a loan officer. During this same period, I have been a member of the Board of Directors of the Home Building Corporation, a fiscal management body of the local Knights of Columbus Council. Anna and I go to the annual Callerlab convention and enjoy meeting with many people. We add days before and after the convention to see the country. We’ve been fortunate to have been able to visit England, France, Germany and Finland. We have made many wonderful friends through the many square dance activities. Service brings great rewards. I continue squares and rounds with a senior group of three to four squares every week. There are plenty of private parties and Father-Daughter dances to call for. We are blessed with our six grown-up kids, none of them living at home, thank God, and our twelve grandchildren. Square dancing has been very good to us. Where would we have been without it.
BB – Right. That’s beautiful Mil. Glad you made some notes for yourself there.
MD – Yeah, I just – I wrote out a few, Bob – an old teacher you know.
BB – (Laughs) Yeah, I guess you’re right. Well no, that’s really great. Well, I know you’ve been very active as you mentioned in North Shore. Is it North Shore Callers?
MD – The North Shore group is actually called Tri-State. That’s Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
BB – Right, and I’m sure you’ve traveled around New England a lot doing some calling?
MD – Done a fair amount of calling up through Plus. I find that people enjoy that. It used to be that people used to try to rush to go further and further, but I think some people are starting to realize that dancing is for fun. It’s not for trying to get to beat out somebody else.
BB – What about National Conventions?
MD – We have only been to three National Conventions – one in Atlantic City, New Jersey, one out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – I forget where the third one was. We have made the effort to attend Callerlab conventions.
BB – Yeah. I know you’ve been very active and you haven’t held any offices in Callerlab or anything have you?
MD – No, I’ve only been on the Mainstream Committee and the Plus Committee, but didn’t run for any office.
BB – So, you mentioned Art Nurse – how about – who were some of the other people that have been helpful in your early days of calling? Jim Mayo, for example?
MD – Well, Jim has been very heavily involved with Tri-State. The one person I remember when I first started back in the early 1970’s was Bob Marsh. Bob Marsh was important to me because he welcomed me to my first Tri-State meeting and made me feel at home, and then he counseled me when I did my first calling slot at the 1971 New England Square and Round Dance Convention in Springfield, Massachusetts. He said, “Only do what you can do. Don’t try to prove anything. The dancers are trying to understand a new voice and how you’re working.” But a funny thing happened there. I knew only three singing calls, and you’re not supposed to repeat a singing call within a two hour period. We have to sign in. So, I looked at the list. Two of my calls had already been used and I said, “Oh my, that’s wonderful. At least I’ve got one that I can do now.” I did not know the guy in front of me had not signed in. He used my third singing call. So, I had to go back and I picked one of the others and I said, “Heck, if I can only do this, that’s what I’m going to do.” So that was a very, very interesting experience. I was following Bob Marsh’s advice. Most importantly, while I was teaching Great Plain Squares in Needham, Massachusetts, in one hall, in the next hall Art Nurse was doing the workshop for Great Plain Squares. We were very, very close and he helped me so much with choreography – the old time goal posting – which I still use and then balancing out Ladies Chain and Four Ladies Chains and kinds of things like that so, as far as sight is concerned, I use some sight – enough to resolve but apparently I can turn my back and know where all the dancers are. That makes me feel good.
BB – Sure. I wish I could have done that more than I did.
MD – The other person who was very important to me was Dick Leger, caller from Rhode Island because – I went to his school. He and Erwin West, Vermont caller, had the callers school that lasted a week. That was all day. It started in the morning, we had lunch, all afternoon and then in the evening we were there again and getting the timing down. So I feel very pleased that I can ‘prompt’ people in time to start out with the first beat of the music. Roger Whynot, caller in Beverly, Massachusetts, was very important to me in the North Of Boston Callers Association giving me exposure to traditional dances. He’d provide the members with free lessons to learn how to prompt Contras. So that helped to develop my timing. I think mine is just a little different than some of the other callers.
BB – I’m sure. You’ve certainly had some good teachers along the way, that’s for sure. Mil, there’s a big activity here for New England Folk…
MD – Folk Festival?
BB – I was a member of the Board of Directors of the Folk Festival Association for several years when I was working at the University of Massachusetts. Have you had any affiliation with NEFFA as a caller?
MD – Yes – NEFFA, yes. We are members of NEFFA as well. We’re members of everything.
BB & MD – Both laugh.
MD – The interesting thing is that the NEFFA Festival that is held at the Natick High School, in Natick, Massachusetts, is always the week of school vacation. Coincidentally, this usually conflicts with our annual New England Sq. and Rd. Dance Convention, which is always the last weekend in April, that includes a Sunday. Some years there is no conflict of time, I think it was last year or the year before, I can’t remember – we go so many places, that we went to the NEFFA Festival. We were fortunate that we knew Ted Sannella very well. We had lunch with him at the festival, and little did we know how serious his illness was. But Ted and I knew one another, and we argued a little bit back and forth about things, but it was all in good fun. Yes, I was blessed with all of these people who gave of their time, but that’s what callers do.
BB – Well, this is a busy area anyway – north of Boston, southern Maine, southern New Hampshire. Now, over the years it’s all expanded up, and now we go all the way up to Bangor, Maine and all the way up to Montpelier, Vermont too for that matter. Well, that’s great. Getting away from square dancing a little bit here. Do you have any other hobbies?
MD – Do I have any other hobbies? In my spare time – I’m a do-it-yourself person. I do my own electrical work, my own plumbing work. When we moved to Connecticut, the builder of our new home was going bankrupt, so he had to get liens and pay off the sub-contractors for fifty cents on the dollar, and I ended up hanging all the doors, putting in all the finished woodwork, and contracted for the driveway and did a whole bunch of those things. Even my wife – we painted at night by headlights to get the house painted. Today we are still doing remodeling and maintaining our property in Reading.
BB – Getting a little bit serious – over the years, what did you find that was the major appeal to calling square dances or leading or teaching etc.?
MD – I think the major appeal was the enjoyment of people because I would always tell, or usually would tell the dancers to face their corner, if you don’t know them to introduce yourself and be sure that you make that person feel at home, and also to look around for other dancers and pull them in and make them feel at home, because when you do things like that you are repaid ten-fold. When I taught high school, – another little aside – I taught sophomore biology. With my sophomores, I taught with a roll of toilet paper. I’d take each sheet and we’d start, why am I so lucky today. The first sheet was “we opened our eyes”, the second “we were able to get up out of bed”, “we were able to walk” and we used all the biological terms –“we were able to urinate”, “we were able to defecate”, “we were able to comb our hair”, “we were able to get dressed”, than I’d end up all those things and I’d say, ”What are some of you people bitching about?” Just using that word you know; knowing that I was using it to get their attention. I think dancing has given more to me than I’ve given to it and, as I mentioned to you, at one of the Father-Daughter dances – one of the ladies said, “You know, you’ve been doing this for so many years, you’ve become a legend” and I didn’t realize I was that old, but I guess I’m up there.
BB & MD – Both laugh.
BB – Well, that’s interesting. Looking back, anything you wished you’d done differently or any regrets?
MD – Yes. My major regret – and I’m still working on it – is to identify a number one couple and number four couple so I can always get them back to their corner. In looking out, I’ve taken to writing it down on a piece of paper so – with each tip – so that I know where they are because I never trained myself to do that in the beginning, which I should have. That’s the one major regret that I have in calling.
BB – Well, that’s not too bad. Anyway, where do you think square dancing has been, where do you think it is now, and where do you think it’s going?
MD – Oh golly. Have you got $64,000.00 – I need that. We were involved at a wonderful time where we had workshops every other Tuesday night, and we were upset if we didn’t have twenty-five squares. We were fortunate enough to have a gymnasium that would hold twenty-five squares and then, at a big dance we’d also use the cafetorium. So I would run a long wire to another set of speakers up there, then I’d ask the club dancers to dance up in the cafetorium so that all of our guests could dance where the caller was. That was wonderful but some people started thinking they were not getting their money’s worth. We used to have a break half way through each dance, and only take a half hour, and we’d sit upstairs and talk with one another – break bread. But then somebody says, “We’re wasting a half hour”, so then they started doing their things – I won’t name what it is – but better things for better dances, and also higher rounds, etc. Doing this eliminated the congeniality of socializing and getting to know the people. I think a lot of people feel they’re not getting their money’s worth if they can’t do everything. They don’t know enough to pull back. Where is it going? I’m somewhat confused. I’m at this stage of the game – if I were let’s say fifteen years younger – I would probably start my own group on a twice-a-month basis, and use some of the ideas of CDP but tailoring it to myself so that people could come in – the same as they used to do with the square dances at the Grange. That was how Anna got started with her family, they went to square dances at the Grange and the Town Hall during the summer months in Billerica, Massachusetts. I think we are going to have to get back to that. I was talking to some other caller and I was saying, “Perhaps the only way we can do this – we have to disassociate the current dancers from the new people who come in – because the older dancers want to continue to do their “plus or advanced” routines, and the newer people are left sitting on the sidelines. A thought to remedy this situation would be to have four or five callers start their own groups, using relaxed dancing, and then work together to visit each other’s group. This would provide dancing fun for people. Right now, it’s a difficult situation because there are so many other kinds of things that are going on that take peoples’ attention. The organizations that I belong to – have only a small nucleus of people who are dedicated and willing to commit themselves. And it’s that way everywhere. Now with families, it’s difficult for people to get out; both people are working, they get home and they say, “Why should I bother?” They sit down with a video. They vegetate, you know, because they’re couch potatoes like Callerlab had on that video.
BB – Well, you’re talking about my philosophy entirely, and I think you’re probably right. Everybody is talking about the cyclical nature of the business and you’re approaching the bottom of the…
MD – Bottom of the hill.
BB – …bottom of the hill and it’s going to be starting up again. I think you’re right. We’re going to have to start new groups and try not to infiltrate our present day dancers in lower, CDP type programs. They just aren’t going to put up with it. We’ve got to train a whole new generation.
MD – A whole new generation.
BB – And a whole new generation of callers too.
MD – Yes, I think one of the other difficult things about newer callers is, today, when you look at the tremendous number of calls that are there – when we first started, you know, in a year’s time you could go through the program – and now, they’re trying to rush to get up with the people who have been doing it for 30 or 40 years. They don’t understand or they don’t have time enough to get that – or they don’t take the training seriously enough. It is supposed to be fun and don’t kill the dancers and that’ll come back.
BB – Well, Mil, this has been a very – I appreciate your taking the time to write down some of your thoughts, and you certainly consolidated about a dozen questions that I had…
MD – Oh, really?
BB – …before I even said anything.
MD – Well, you can tell from a teacher , for thirty-five years, that I’ve done a few things around – busy, busy, busy.
BB – But I think we have pretty well covered everything that I wanted to cover and I appreciate your taking time to talk with me this morning, and we’re going to be talking to more people here, and I appreciate the fact that you’re getting many of the Founders of the Square Dance Foundation of New England together so that I can talk with them instead of having to…
MD – Yes, my wife will be doing more of the talking for the Foundation because she’s the President. I’m just the so-called “lug around” to do what’s necessary in order to make things go.
BB – You carry the briefcase.
MD – Yes. The funny thing about that is, just the year before she became President, we were at the New England Convention in Waterbury, Connecticut, and some of the people at the Square Dance Foundation’s exhibit booth were talking about a new slate of officers and one of the guys said, “Well, we need a new slate of officers”. Anna heard that and jokingly said, “You’re not ready for a woman President, are you?” They said they were. She was elected at the annual meeting. She’s done an absolutely superb job, with all the things she’s done. One other thing though is, you haven’t had the chance to talk to Anna as far as the square dance activity is concerned. Anna is a fashion consultant and does the fashion shows for the New England Square and Round Dance Conventions. She’s done about, at least fourteen of them and is preparing for the next convention that will be held in Danvers. The title of the 1998-1999 convention is: Northshore, Massachusetts. So we are both carrying the load.
BB – Yeah, I guess you are.
MD – And we love it.
BB – Well Mil, thank you very much. We’re just about to the end of this tape and…
MD – Gee, I didn’t realize we had talked this long, Bob – I get a chance,
when my wife isn’t around, to talk.
MD – Laughs.
MD – Thanks so much for coming.
BB – You know she listens to you.
MD – Oh, she does. I’ve got some other stories I’ll tell you when we’re not on tape.
BB – OK. Well, let’s conclude this tape then – we’re just about to the end, and I’m going to turn this tape over – run it to the end, and then turn it over and we’ll have other interviews on the other side. So, once again, thank you very much, Mil.
MD – God Bless You, guy.
End of Side A – End of Interview with Mil Dixon
Side B is blank