Army veteran, one of first black women to serve, turns 105 in style

September 11, 2012

The way Alyce Dixon takes command of a room, the way she’s showered with greetings and blessings from other residents and staffers at the VA Medical Center as she rolls through the halls, can make it seem as if her wheelchair is a throne on wheels.

No wonder she’s called the “Queen Bee” at the medical center, where she’s lived for 10 years.

Dixon — one of the first African American women to serve in the Army — continued her spitfire assault on a second century of living with a spirited birthday bash Tuesday celebrating 105 years.

In a sunny, balloon-filled community room at the VA Medical Center in the District, a jazz combo played, Mayor Vincent C. Gray sent birthday wishes and — at Dixon’s request — everyone in her geriatrics unit dined on shrimp and crab cakes. As usual, Dixon pressed everyone to supply her with some new jokes. In one of the many tributes to her World War II service, Dixon was presented with a dozen red, white and yellow roses.

“On behalf of the Amvets, we wanted to give you flowers while you’re still smelling them,” said Aaron Smith, district commander of the D.C. Amvets. Dixon, sitting in a wheelchair under a “Princess” balloon, soaked it up, happy to note that even the “big shots” had come.

“I want to thank you all for being here,” she said. “I feel like Marilyn Monroe or something like that.”

Dixon, who was born on Sept. 11, 1907, has lost family. She lost a leg to a nasty infection. She thinks she may have lost an inch in height over the years, leaving her a feisty 4-foot-9. But she has not lost any zest for life, or the sharp edge to her tongue. If you live long enough, you form a lot of opinions about life. If you live to be 105 years old, you let them fly.

On aging well: “I’d like to let you know that when you get old, you don’t have to dry up. I tell the girls all the time: ‘Put on your jewelry! Look good! Be active! Be positive!’ ”

On politics: “You got a bunch of stupid up there running the country.” (President Obama excepted, she said.)

On health: “I smoked for 40 years. Drank, too.”

On speaking her mind: “I’m still here, 105 years old. I can talk, fuss and cuss, and do everything. What do you want to know?”

On a visit this week, as her mind ranged over the memories she’s accumulated from more than a century, she reeled off anecdotes, opinions and wisecracks that veered from poignant to comical to outrageous and politically incorrect. She finished more than a few of them with a knowing cackle.

Before she does interviews — several news outlets have come calling in recent years — she requires warning. Everything must be just so, staffers said. She makes sure her wig’s in place, that her lipstick is neatly limned. During a visit Monday, she wore a snazzy violet blouse, a gold and purple necklace, and black slacks. It’s that knack for style that inspired her to start spelling her name the way 1920s Hollywood star Alyce Mills spelled hers.

“My mother said, ‘You wasn’t born like that,’ ” Dixon recalled. “I said, ‘Now I am.’ ” She was 13 at the time.

Part Jewish and African American, Dixon (nee Ellis) was born and raised in a mixed Irish and Jewish neighborhood in Boston. Her father trained horses at tracks. Her mother looked after their family. “She had nine children. What else could she do?” Dixon said.

She said she had never heard of racial segregation until her family moved to the District in 1924, her senior year in high school. After graduating from Dunbar, she went to Howard University to become a bookkeeper. That lasted only a year, however, as her father struggled to pay the tuition. So she went to work, first at the Lincoln Theatre at $15 a week as a secretary, and kept taking night classes. Later, she landed a job at the Pentagon as a purchasing specialist.

“I bought everything from pencils to airplanes,” she said.

Alarmed by the appearance of spots on her skin, she enlisted in the Army, hoping to receive medical care for the disorder, known as vitiligo, which gradually changed her light brown skin to white. It was 1944 when she joined the Women’s Army Corps.

Dixon became one of the first women dispatched overseas. When she arrived in England with the 6888th Battalion, a postal service division, she asked whether it needed someone to type the camp’s publication. Soon she was writing, too, including a column called “Waccy Chatter.” Her next assignment took her to France, where several battles had led to a massive pileup of undelivered mail. Her voice fills with pride when she talks about how her unit reduced the backlog.

Along the way, she married a builder named George Dixon, and they lived in Northeast. She had a boy who died in infancy. Later, the couple divorced, only to cross paths again at the medical center years later, after he had remarried and started another family.

Looking back over her life, Dixon said she has but one regret: “I wanted to be tall.”

And the secret to living long and well?

“Enjoy this life while you’re living,” she told the partygoers Tuesday. “You got this one life to live — live it to the fullest. And be kind to people. Remember that there’s always someone who could use you, who could use your help. Try to share some of the things you have that they don’t have. Try to help someone along the way.”

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