His philosophy was simple: You get out of life what you put into it.
The late Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr., taught English and French at his alma mater, Episcopal Academy, where he also coached several sports teams and served as athletic director. He claimed he was the only member of the Widener family who ever did work.
“I’m fortunate I don’t have to go out and earn a paycheck,” Dixon once said. “But I couldn’t sit home and do nothing. Christ, I’d be a martini drunkard at the end of six months.”
Sportsman and philanthropist Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr., died of melanoma cancer last August at age 82. A lifelong horseman who owned racehorses, dressage horses, and jumpers, he was best known in the showing world as the owner of famed jumper Jet Run.
Michael Matz’s partnership with the Show Jumping Hall of Fame inductee was the most significant of his career. Matz and Jet Run topped the medal stand at the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, earning both the team and individual gold medals. In 1981, the duo emerged victorious at the FEI Jumping World Cup Final in England. That same year, Matz rode Jet Run to the AGA Horse of the Year title.
Matz first rode show jumpers for Dixon in the late 1970s.
“He was a wonderful man,” said Matz, who trained Dixon’s thoroughbreds. “Mr. Dixon gave me so many opportunities in the horse world. I will be forever grateful.”
Dixon’s activities and philanthropy extended to a wealth of medical facilities, civic organizations and special events. One closest to his heart was the Devon Horse Show. In the 1960s he donated $50,000 to redo the show ring at the famed horse event, now known as the Dixon Oval.
The Devon Horse Show’s chairman Leonard King, of Malvern, said Dixon was at the forefront in raising funds for their capital campaign and purchasing the horse show’s grounds. When skyboxes were built at the venue, Dixon purchased the first, a 12-seater for $100,000.
“He used to kid me ‘every time you set up an appointment with me, I’m thinking, what’s it going to cost me,’” said King, who’s been involved with the horse show for 40 years. “I last saw him in May. We had a lot of fun over the years.”
“He was truly passionate about so many endeavors and horses were right up there,” added Betty Moran, a fellow director of the Devon Horse Show.
Dixon was the primary heir to a venerable Philadelphia family Widener/Elkins that made its fortune by providing mutton to Union troops during the Civil War and then by investing in the ensuing expansion of rail service across the region and the country.
His grandfather, George Dunton Widener, and uncle, Harry Elkins Widener, died in 1912 in the infamous sinking of the Titanic. Dixon’s grandmother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, also was on the ill-fated voyage but made it onto a life raft and was rescued. Dixon is said to have worn a ring that his grandfather owned and handed to his grandmother before the Titanic went down.
Many of Ftiz Dixon top horses trained his top horses at his 500-acre Erdenheim Farm. The property is one of the last pieces of land within a few miles of the city of Philadelphia.
“With its rolling hills and grazing sheep, cattle and horses, it's really reminiscent of a simpler time in our lives," said Hugh Moulton who sits on the board of The Nature Conservancy.
"It's really quite unusual, quite unique, quite spectacular - and we want to see that it stays that way.”
The University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center was a longtime recipient of Dixon’s generosity. The intensive care unit (where the ’06 Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro was treated until the decision was made to end his life) is a portion of the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals. It’s named for Dixon’s uncle.
“He was a very loyal friend and true believer in us,” said Jane Simone, Director of Development at New Bolton. “Mr. Dixon was a great supporter of education and greatly respected that aspect of what New Bolton does. He was also a great advocate of agriculture, seeing it as a wonderful resource to the state.”
Over the past few years Dixon relocated a number of his mares from Kentucky back to Rick Abbott’s farm in Chester County, Pa. to take advantage of the Pennsylvania-bred bonuses. Abbott also worked as Dixon’s bloodstock agent, acquiring horses at some of racing’s biggest sales.
In January ’06 Dixon purchased two-time stakes winner Solvig at the Keeneland (KY.) sale. The pregnant mare drew plenty of onlookers when she popped up at Abbott’s Charlton Farm in January 2006. Six weeks later she delivered the first Pennsylvania son of Smarty Jones.
Solvig has been bred back to another Philly star, Afleet Alex. A colt was delivered in early March.
“He took a great delight in the whole Smarty Jones story,” Abbott said. “To him it was another wonderful Philadelphia story.”
So what is the Fitz Eugene Dixon legacy in the world of horses in Chester County? Here’s one.
“The Devon Horse Show is 110 years old,” said Leonard King. “Hopefully, it will continue to go on forever and he’ll be celebrated for the Dixon Oval for just as long.”