A man of words, deeds

Randy Nixon is complicated, contradictory and deeply committed to his community

April 23, 2006|By GERALD P. MERRELL | GERALD P. MERRELL,SUN REPORTER

The first thing one notices about Randy Nixon is his propensity for effusiveness. A simple question is rarely answered simply. "I never use one word when 10 will do," he says, both acknowledging and mocking the trait. When asked about the day he beat Lance Armstrong in the Tour of Nutley, for example, Nixon spices his reply with a 4:27 tutorial on cycling's culture in New Jersey.

But discussions with him are far from tedious exercises. They are lessons in context. Indeed, in less than an hour he manages to quote or cite Alexander Hamilton, Homer, a Chinese proverb, Adam Smith, Oscar Wilde, W.E.B. DuBois, Redd Foxx, even Frank Zappa, the composer and satirist.

Nixon was recently a principal force in scuttling contentious zoning changes proposed by Howard County officials. But he is best known perhaps as the proprietor of Nixon's Farm, which for decades has catered corporate events, school outings, weddings and reunions and sponsored wine tastings and theme parties on the family's 128-acre estate in western Howard. But those are only the veneer.

He is deeply complicated. Nixon studied to be a philosopher, but never spent a second in the field. He turned his back on the law less than two years after joining a prestigious firm. He spent a summer in the instructional league as a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

And he is a tapestry of contradictions. Nixon is distrustful of government, but most likely will seek public office. He is liberal - he prefers the word progressive - on most social issues, yet a die-hard Republican. He is a passionate spokesman for public schools but a product largely of elite, private ones. And while he advocates protection of the environment, he probably will someday sell the family farm for development.

Above all, say those who know him best, Nixon is a man of unwavering ethics, extraordinarily devoted to his family and committed to improving his community.

"His word is what he lives by," says County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who has known Nixon since he was 12.

"He's an exceptional person," says Paul Riecks, president and co-founder of Inner Circle of Baltimore, which counsels companies on management and expansion issues. "He has high integrity and is someone who really honors the family. ... He lives according to his principles."

Nixon is all those things because he is a product of them. And he is those things, he acknowledges, because he is fortunate.

"I'm the luckiest guy you know," he says. "The gods have anointed me - no question about it. I am truly blessed."

He isn't being diffident. Randal Keith Nixon, 49, is unquestionably the beneficiary of parents who, despite limited educations and enduring poverty and racism for much of their lives, willed a different future for their two sons through sheer determination and entrepreneurship.

His father, Roosevelt, grew up in rural North Carolina tobacco country, one of two sons to parents who scraped out a living as subsistence farmers. The boys at times were whipped mercilessly, and were often awakened before dawn when their father drew a bucket of cold water from the well and tossed it on their beds to make them get up to milk the cows and feed the chickens.

School officials placed the boys, like virtually every black child in the South those days, on the vocational track. They taught things like bricklaying and carpentry, not academics.

Father goes to war

It is unclear whether Roosevelt Nixon graduated from high school before running away in 1941 and joining the Navy, which was being forced to relax its ban on African-Americans because of the growing wartime manpower shortage. Even then, though, it restricted them to being stevedores, and acts of racism were common.

He served on a transport ship and was involved in some of the most famous battles in the Pacific, among them Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, as well as the first Kamikaze attacks on American ships, in Leyte Gulf.

He told his sons: "I fought the white man behind me and the Japanese in front of me - all the way to Tokyo Bay."

He migrated to Baltimore after the war and soon met Mildred Joyce Barnes.

She, too, had been raised in North Carolina, one of six children. Her father was rarely home, leaving her mother to care for the children.

"He was a truck driver and he was extremely - let's call it peripatetic," Randy Nixon says. "As a result, he wasn't there in a financial way for them."

Mildred later told stories of how her mother bundled up the children and walked across town in the dead of winter to borrow money to pay the rent and, mainly, to prevent social workers from sending the children to foster homes.

Mildred graduated from high school but was limited to vocational classes, so she chose barber school. She later moved to Baltimore, where she got a job in a barbershop on Lynwood Avenue.

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