Shirley A. Dixon, 73, of West Philadelphia, an office worker for two decades before becoming a groundbreaking educator at Cabrini University, died Friday, Nov. 29, of cardiac arrest at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.
Born in Philadelphia, Dr. Dixon graduated from West Philadelphia High School. She had been an office worker for the Philadelphia Housing Authority before deciding to pursue her dream of a career in education.
In 1979, Dr. Dixon enrolled in the Catholic liberal arts school in Radnor, then called Cabrini College. “From the moment I stepped on campus, I knew that Cabrini was going to be a special place for me,” she was quoted as saying in a college bulletin.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1984 and a master’s degree in 1989, both in education, and was granted a doctoral degree in educational leadership in 2018. She was the first to receive a doctorate from Cabrini and is the only Cabrini graduate to receive all three degrees there, the school said.
“Shirley was an iconic member of the Cabrini community, serving as a loyal trustee, proud three-time graduate, beloved faculty member, and respected leader in college-wide diversity efforts,” said president Donald B. Taylor. “Her impact on the field of education and on the Cabrini family has been immeasurable.”
Dr. Dixon chalked up many “firsts,” said her niece Karen Dukes. She taught fifth grade at Girard College, the private Philadelphia boarding school for underprivileged youngsters, and became the first African American to serve as principal of Girard College Elementary School.
In 1990, Dr. Dixon became the first African American to join the Cabrini board of trustees. Two years later, she accepted a position as an adjunct professor in the education department. In 1996, she became full-time coordinator of diversity while continuing to teach.
In 2009, when Dr. Dixon received a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, she resolved to live even more fully than before.
“She was a lesson in endurance, perseverance, and commitment,” Dukes said. “When she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, she traveled more and got a Ph.D. She always said, ‘If I die tomorrow, I’ve lived a wonderful life.’”
Dr. Dixon’s commitment to Cabrini was recognized in 2016 when she received the school’s first Compass Award. In 2018, the university held the first Shirley Dixon Celebration of Urban Education Symposium. It drew 200 participants.
She served as an assistant education professor from 2007 until 2014, when she retired from Cabrini, although she continued teaching as an adjunct professor at Drexel University until just before her death.
Dr. Dixon liked to say that being an educator opened doors. She participated in a symposium in England with educators from around the world.
While teaching in rural Ghana, she saw students drinking tainted water and wrote a paper petitioning the United Nations to make clean drinking water a human right. It helped move the topic from ninth to fourth on the U.N. priority list.
In 2008, when China opened its criminal justice system to outsiders, Dr. Dixon went there to meet with judges and lawyers. In 2009, she served as principal for a girls’ school in South Africa.
A longtime advocate for ensuring that students receive an equitable education, Dr. Dixon was recognized by the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP in 2013 as one of 104 influential black women.
While at Cabrini, she established an endowment in memory of her cousin. The scholarship aids Cabrini students of color who wish to continue their studies, with preference given to those in education.
Dr. Dixon enjoyed reading, traveling, the theater, movies, shopping, and spending time with family.
In addition to Dukes, she is survived by nieces Ava Walker and Kim Rucker; nephews Barry Schultz, Thornton Dickerson, and Tobias Walker; and a large extended family.
A viewing starting at 9 a.m. Friday, Dec. 6, at Mount Carmel Baptist Church, 5732 Race St., will be followed by 11 a.m. funeral services. Burial is in Mount Lawn Cemetery, Sharon Hill.