Mixing business, philosophy

Academic, career achievements lead Randall Nixon back to his family's farm


Randy Nixon was rehearsing for a school play, but Thanksgiving at the family farm was also on his mind - heightened by a forecast of snow. So he didn't think much of it when his mother arrived early Nov. 22, 1972, to pick him up from Park School.

She pulled him aside and broke the news: His father had been shot to death outside his North Bond Street store in Baltimore during a robbery attempt.

While Randy Nixon coped with his father's death, his mother struggled to keep the family afloat. She was determined to keep him at Park and to preserve the farm.

Mildred Nixon struggled, but managed both, mainly with savings, for two years while she battled the insurance company. It finally paid a life insurance policy for $260,000.

But she was also savvy and knew the country club trade at the farm could not be sustained. A year later, she changed the name and focus of the family business to Nixon's Farm to cater corporate and public events. "We're a farm community," she said. "We're not a country club. ... I want something that is natural and wholesome and basic."

It took two years for the enormity of the loss of Randy Nixon's father to set in. "When I got to be 17, I realized what my father was trying to teach me in his own, sort of working-class, inarticulate way," he says. "He had established these benchmarks for me, and I didn't have him anymore and I was going to kind of wing it. You realize you need someone to help [when] you do some things that are really pretty jejune."

He graduated from Park in 1974 and was widely pursued by universities because he was a top student, had a "very high" SAT score, was African-American and was an athlete. Sixty schools made offers, but he settled on Cornell.

Unbeknown to him for years, a teacher at Park helped pay the tuition for Cornell for four years.

Randy Nixon wanted to be a philosopher. "If you ever want to drive a stake in your parents' heart, go home and tell them you want to become a professional philosopher," he says.

He took a double major in philosophy and history, and a double minor - fine arts, with a concentration in graphics, and comparative literature - and competed in football ("badly") and track ("somewhat better") and on the chess and debate teams.

In his junior year, a professor and adviser took Nixon aside and told him that assistant professors earned less than $20,000 a year.

"`Unless you have money, I would not do this,'" Nixon recalls being told. "`You are very bright, and I think you would make an excellent academic, but you will struggle financially.'"

He graduated in 1978 with degrees in both majors, but he never became the professional academic he had envisioned. Instead, Nixon returned to the family farm. "I hadn't really focused on the practical applications of a university degree," he says. "I had to think of how I was going to make a living, and I couldn't come up with much."

A cousin was playing baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates' farm system and knew Nixon had a lively arm. He suggested that Nixon try out for the team as a pitcher.

Nixon was assigned to the instructional league in West Virginia. "I must still hold the record for the number of hit batters and walks - no one could have exceeded that," he says. "I could throw a 95-mph fastball - but not straight."

On the team bus, he read books and played chess. His manager pulled him aside at the end of the season and told Nixon: "Boy, you got a first-class education. You really ought to go and use it."

But how?

Nixon began speaking with Cornell alumni, and one got him appointments on Capitol Hill, including one with U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, a Democrat from Baltimore.

They had met years earlier, though Nixon had forgotten. "Do you remember what you said to me when you were 9 years old?" Mitchell asked.

"No, Congressman. I don't remember meeting you at all," Nixon replied.

"Well, what you said is, `I'd like to come and work for you one day.' That day has come."

Nixon was hired as a legislative assistant at the age of 21.

He remained in Washington from late 1978 to 1981. "It was a wonderful experience," Nixon says. "To really help shape legislation and to begin to influence policy in a small way - is an incredibly intoxicating thing. ... I loved being able to take very abstract ideas - Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hamilton and Madison - and say, `How do we make society better?'"

But, Nixon says, he realized that to be successful on Capital Hill one had to "go home - you can't do it from Washington."

It was then that he decided on law school. He was also thinking of something else.

Nixon had been introduced to Jennifer Jackson in late 1979, and he was "smitten by her" from the start.

"She was this apparition," he says. "I was bowled over; she was so gorgeous."

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