Midshipman recalled as `the nicest guy'

April 14, 2005|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Those who knew Midshipman Jay Michael Dixon said he was a man of few words, but that when he spoke, people listened. When he told one of his dry jokes, people laughed. And when he set a goal for himself, he always seemed to realize it.

"He had wanted to go to the Naval Academy since he was a youngster," said Donna Hendley, Dixon's aunt. "Once he got there, it was all he expected, and more - he loved the place."

Today, friends, family members and more than 50 midshipmen are scheduled to gather at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Destrehan, La. to mourn the loss of Dixon - a 21-year-old physics major who died in a fall from the academy's dormitory last Saturday.

The discovery of his body outside Bancroft Hall has shaken the typically quiet campus in Annapolis and left the victim's family and friends with unanswered questions.

What was Dixon, a junior, doing the night - or morning - that he died? When and how did it happen? Did anyone see him fall?

Those close to Dixon said they are agonizing over how such a successful, sensible and seemingly life-loving young man could have tumbled to his death.

"There are still a lot of questions," said Lester Amick, a science instructor who taught Dixon at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans. "That's made things even more difficult for all of us."

Academy officials have said little about the tragedy, which is being investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Washington. They have declined to comment on precisely where or when Dixon's body was found, or from where he fell.

"The investigation is still going on," said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, academy spokesman. "I'm not comfortable releasing anything until it is complete."

At the academy, word of Dixon's death spread quickly - stunning many of the more than 4,000 midshipmen.

Some sought counseling. On a recent weekday, others scanned the windows lining the upper floors of the huge dormitory, where two other students have fallen to their deaths since 1988. One of the deaths was ruled a suicide, the other an accident. News of Dixon's fall has also made headlines nationwide .

The eldest son of J. Michael and Debrah Dixon, he was raised in Destrehan - a small town 15 miles from New Orleans.

Hendley said that as a boy, Dixon's ambition was to join the Marine Corps, as one of his uncles had. To pave his way there, Dixon attended Brother Martin, a Catholic school with a Naval Junior ROTC program.

"From the moment he entered our program he was a front-runner," Amick said. "He was dedicated and smart, and he had a quiet sense of humor."

At Brother Martin, friends said, Dixon excelled in almost everything he did.

"Even people who didn't know him personally knew of Jay Dixon," said Andrew Canatella, a longtime friend who is now a student at Tulane University. "He had a commanding presence, but he was also the nicest guy - he'd help out anyone with a problem."

In his junior year at Brother Martin, Dixon was appointed a platoon commander in his company. By his senior year at that school, Dixon rose to executive officer - second in charge of his company of 125.

Dixon also shined academically, earning high marks in all his classes, and athletically, starring on the school's NJROTC drill team.

He became one of a handful of Brother Martin students to gain acceptance to the Naval Academy during the past two decades.

"We were so proud of him," Amick said. "He was pursuing his dream."

Dixon's ascent to the academy, his passion for the Marines and his love of the academy have made his death all the more puzzling to friends.

"He was really looking forward to being a Marine, and I know he would have ended up a general," Canatella said.

Family members also described Dixon as an upbeat person who was not easily discouraged, and as a devout Catholic who found comfort in religion.

"His faith was his foundation," Hendley said. "His parents taught him you need a foundation to build a life, and he was one of those rare young men that took that to heart."

Dixon's 62-year-old father died suddenly of cancer last fall. Just weeks earlier, the midshipman had lost his grandfather.

"I talked to him about it and knew he was really upset," Canatella said.

According to Dixon's family, he provided support to his mother and younger brother, Gregory, an 18-year-old senior at Brother Martin.

"It knocked him for a loop, but he returned to the academy knowing his dad would have been so proud of him," Amick said. "He handled the situation as he did everything else - I never saw him lose control."

Dixon's death came more than 2 1/2 years after another midshipman, John Paul Ruggiero, died when he fell 53 feet from the fourth-floor window of his Bancroft Hall room.

Investigators ruled the death of Ruggiero, who had been drinking with friends at an off-campus party, an accident. His parents sued the Navy, contending that the academy failed to properly secure the windows, but a judge dismissed the suit. Academy officials later installed protective devices on some of the dorm's large windows, though some upper-floor windows can be opened, leading to the curved ledge of the roof.

Officials at the academy said a memorial service for Dixon will be scheduled in the next few weeks.

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