Hollis “Tom” Dixon stands outside his Masonic Lodge office on Congress Street in Portland on a sunny Friday afternoon, telling a story about a foggy day in 1970 when, in the midst of his career as a Maine state trooper, his life almost ended.
He grabs his left arm and pulls up his shirt sleeve, revealing a bumpy and swollen wrist that was damaged when an 18-wheeler struck his police cruiser, almost killing both him and his partner.
“We had pulled a car over who had passed us traveling at 85 miles per hour in a fog where you couldn’t see the hood of your car,” Dixon said. “While we were pulled over, a big rig came over the hill and struck the police cruiser. His tires left rubber on the backseat of the car and his tires slammed into Ormond Trask’s head, smashing his face into the steering wheel and breaking his nose.
“I was walking back to the car and the truck pushed the cruiser into me and I went flying through the passenger-side door window. I broke my left wrist, busted my knee and broke my ribs.”
While Dixon tells the story, he laughs in places. He chalks the experience up to just another day as a Maine state trooper.
It was events like that one coupled with a 25-year career as a state trooper that recently earned Dixon the title of legendary.
In late May, the Maine State Police bestowed its highest honor on the 73-year-old Dixon when it named him Legendary Trooper of the police force, an honor that recognizes an officer’s courage and exemplary public service in law enforcement.
Dixon, whom his friends describe as humble and warm, said he appreciates the award but it was his service to Maine that was his true reward.
“It means a great deal, because the state police was my primary career. I was extremely proud of being a state trooper,” said Dixon, who is also a former Scarborough police chief. “I felt very fortunate to even have been accepted. I feel I had a very good work ethic because of my family history and I tried very hard and I had a lot of success. I had a nice career.”
For as long as Dixon can remember, he wanted to be a state trooper. It wasn’t the power or the freedom of the job, but a feeling of respect that drew the Lewiston native and Scarborough resident to his chosen profession.
In 1958, Dixon became a trooper at age 22. He moved through the ranks, eventually becoming a captain in the late 1970s before retiring in 1983.
Born in Lewiston, he moved to South Portland when he was 6. That was during World War II, and he said he remembers two uncles who served during the war. He said their service and his respect for them led to his career.
“I had nothing but great respect for them,” Dixon said. “I’ve always had great respect for our military personnel and I knew that I wanted to serve our citizens in some capacity. I got interested in police work when I was in my 20s, and I never really considered joining any other department except the state police because I looked upon them as the elite.”
After graduating from the Maine State Police Academy in 1958, Dixon landed his first job at the Troop A barracks in Kittery. There he met one of the most influential people in his career. He was assigned to a training officer, a 12-year veteran and former Navy Seal named Chester Emmons.
Emmons showed him the ropes, groomed him for the job and also gave him his nickname.
“He’s what you called a tough trooper,” Dixon said. “First thing he said to me was, ‘What did they say your name was?’ I told him Hollis. He said that wouldn’t do. He said, ‘We’ll call you Tom,’ and I told him I didn’t want to be called that because I had a brother-in-law named Tom. He said, ‘Tom or Mary.’ ”
From then on, every police officer Dixon met called him Tom.
Dixon’s partner Trask remembers Dixon as a “great” officer, but recalls that day in 1970 that almost killed both of them as a defining moment in Dixon’s character.
“We shouldn’t be alive,” said Trask, who temporarily went blind 30 years later as a result of his head injuries. “I don’t know how we survived, especially Tom, because he got hurt worse than I did.”
Trask said Dixon never stewed over the accident and when he was ready to return to work, he did so with aplomb.
“He is just that kind of man,” Trask said. “He was a wonderful man to work for, but he was an even better person to be a friend of.”
Another memorable on-the-job experience for Dixon involved a run-in with organized crime.
During Labor Day in 1962, Dixon met with a man who said the Mafia had a contract out on him and was trying to kill him. Dixon asked him to wait in the station while he called the head of the criminal division in Augusta to verify the man’s story.
“He said he couldn’t tell me how he knew the Mafia was after him,” Dixon said. “I knew the Massachusetts State Police had a detail that tracked the Mafia, and I asked our criminal division if they knew this Anthony Staphapopolous. They called me back about five or 10 minutes later and asked if I still had that guy there. They told me to hold onto him because he was a key witness in a Mafia hit case.”
Earlier in the day the Mafia had tried to kill Staphapopolous in the woods in Scarborough, but he noticed the black car with four men inside and took off, Dixon said.
Dixon said he was going to transport Staphapopolous to the New Hampshire line so their state police could turn him over to the Massachusetts State Police, but a warning came in before he left for the detail.
“The dispatcher called the barracks in Scarborough and said I probably wanted to know there was a black car going back and forth with four men in it,” Dixon said. “I said ‘Holy cow.’ I had a few officers wait and they later verified the scene was clear. I got another trooper to ride with me and I took every damn back road all the way there.”
Dixon almost swerved from his trooper ambitions when a love for art took hold of him in his late teens. After graduating from South Portland High School, he received a scholarship to the School of Fine and Applied Arts, now Maine College of Art, in Portland.
“I went to that school and I completed three years at that school and got three scholarships,” Dixon said. “I got to the point where I didn’t really know if I wanted to continue that career path, and that’s when I turned my interest to police work and applied to the academy and got accepted to the state police.”
Dixon said he enjoys painting watercolors and oil paintings, but now focuses on calligraphy. He doesn’t have as much time for art these days, because he is Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Masons, which means he oversees the 24 secretaries of the 187 lodges in Maine.
“It definitely keeps me busy,” he said.
Those who know Dixon know that slowing down is not in his nature, said Corey Center, his stepdaughter. “He was a wonderful stepdad to have, because he is always involved with something,” Center said.
After Dixon retired from the state police in 1983, he became Scarborough’s police chief, a post he held until 1999.
“It was tough sometimes having your stepfather as the police chief in the town (where) you attended high school,” Center said. “You couldn’t get away with anything.”
It had its perks, however, Center said. She remembers going to see the Blue Angels, and also meeting George W. Bush, even before he was governor of Texas, in the late 1980s. “That’s not a childhood a lot of people got to experience,” she said.
In the past year, Dixon has written a book intended for his family. He has a son and a daughter from a previous marriage and has been married for the past 28 years to Sandra Dixon, who had two daughters from a previous marriage. There are several grandchildren now.
While he relishes his stories, he said he has no intentions of making his book public.
“I had a great life as a trooper and I have a lot of stories to tell,” he said. “There are some stories, however, that are a bit more personal and I want to leave those for my family, because those are who they’re for.”