April 8, 2013

Coroner Bobbie Dixon has shown her concern for families in aftermath of death for 20 years

By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about “The Class of ’93,” three Whitfield County officials who were first elected in 1992 and have since been re-elected five times — Coroner Bobbie Dixon, Sheriff Scott Chitwood and Tax Commissioner Danny Sane. Today’s segment focuses on Coroner Dixon.

 

When Bobbie Dixon’s phone rings, she knows death could be waiting on the other end.

As Whitfield County coroner since 1993, Dixon has investigated so many deaths that the reports fill up seven file cabinets in her modest office on Walnut Avenue.

Even though she is in her sixth — and what she says will be her final — term of office, Dixon still approaches her job with the same caring attitude that’s made her so popular with local voters.

She says “they try to teach us” in coroner school how to deal with death emotionally on a 24/7/365 basis, but some things can’t be taught. They have to be learned through real life experience.

“I lost my husband five years ago … soon to be six,” Dixon says. “Before that, I thought I could really sympathize with people, say, ladies losing their husbands. But I didn’t even know what I was talking about!

“I know now,” she says, pausing to put emphasis on the words, “what it’s like to lose a husband, and I can really relate to these ladies because I’ve been there, done that.”

Such compassion makes Dixon an ideal fit for her job because she frequently sees people on some of the darkest days of their lives.

“If I can help one person during a death,” she says, “then when I get home, I feel good about it because I’ve been there for somebody. I stay longer at a lot of cases than I’m actually required to because I try to stay there with the family till they kinda get settled down and get back down to themselves. It helps to have somebody to talk to, and I’m there for them if they want to talk to me.”



Planting the seeds

The seeds for Dixon’s election to the coroner’s office were actually planted in the 1980s when she and her late husband, Donald,  owned and operated Dixon Ambulance Service in Whitfield County for six-and-a-half years. After selling the business and opening a florist shop called Bobbie’s, she was encouraged by some prominent local medical leaders to run for coroner in 1992. Her caring attitude struck a chord with voters, and she’s never been challenged since.

While she modestly says she doesn’t “have a clue” why voters have responded so positively to her, Dixon says she appreciates all their support. “I appreciate ’em all,” she says. “I guess God’s been with me. I couldn’t do it without him because sometimes … a lot of times, I say, ‘God, get me out of this one, and I’ll get out of the next one myself.’ That happens many times.”

The compassion she’s shown to families visited by death and serious illness during the past 20 years goes back a lot longer than just 1993.

While she and Donald were running the ambulance service, they became a big supporter of the work done by the Shriners and their children’s hospitals.

“We transported I don’t know how many children,” she says. “We’d either take them to the airport or transport them to Augusta to the burn center. We never made a ticket on them, never charged them nothing to take them. They’d be burnt so bad … you can’t hand nobody a charge for something like that. Donald would just say we’ll make it up somewhere else.”

The “payment” sometimes came years later in a non-monetary way.

After transporting a young girl with swelling on the brain to the hospital many years ago, the girl, now married with two children of her own, dropped by to see Dixon one day.

“She said, ‘Do you know who I am?’” Dixon says. “I said, ‘I’m sorry but I don’t.’ Then she told me about that trip, and ‘Oh, honey, yes I do, I know who you are now.’ She said, ‘Yep, you rode with me to Atlanta when I was so sick.’”

Just recently, Dixon answered a call where a man had just died, and his wife looked at her and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“I said, ‘I’m sorry but I don’t.’ She said, ‘Did you ever ride to Atlanta with a little 3-month-old kid that had pericarditis?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ She said, ‘That was my son. He’s 35 now, and you know, they told us when y’all left out with him that y’all might not make it to Atlanta.’ I said, ‘Tell me about it! Me and Dr. Spanger fought with that baby; we ambo’d him all the way to Atlanta and they finally got that infection out from around his heart and he pulled through it.’”

Dixon also receives Christmas cards from out-of-town families whose loved one’s death here was investigated by her and she made a lasting impression on them.



What the coroner does

The duties of the coroner can be traced back to 12th century England. In those days the coroner not only had the duty of determining the manner of death but also had authority over the estate of the deceased. As time passed those duties became the domain of the Inferior Courts. In colonial America the duties of the coroner have always mainly pertained to issues concerning  the deceased. The coroner is unique in that the duties encompass three areas — judicial, law enforcement and medical-legal investigation.

In Georgia the office of the coroner in each county is an elected position. Primarily the duty of the coroner is to determine both the cause and manner of death. The coroner has at his or her disposal the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Division of Forensic Science. The GBI-DOFS operates the state crime lab. In cases that are criminal in nature the coroner works closely with local law enforcement. In Georgia the coroner becomes the sheriff in case of a vacancy in that office. The coroner has the authority to hold a judicial inquest if one is so justified and requested by a family or law enforcement.

Dixon says her office investigates the death of any person who doesn’t have a doctor so she can sign the death certificate. The coroner also has to help investigate all deaths caused by accident, homicide, suicide, anything that’s criminal-related.

“Normally we leave the investigation up to the investigators from law enforcement,” Dixon said, “but we’re there to assist them in any way we can. It’s a lot that we have to do, a lot of paperwork. You see my desk? I’m searching medical records now on a lady the doctor won’t sign the death certificate for, so now it has come to me and I’ve got to go through the medical records and try to get with the doctor and find out why she died.”

That sometimes means sending the body to the state crime lab for an autopsy and toxicology report that determines the cause of death.

“We’ve got some good people here,” Dixon said of the law enforcement personnel in Whitfield County. “We all work well together. That’s the reason we can work a case and everybody’s happy and we can come to a conclusion on the cause of death because you’ve got to work together. You can’t do it by yourself. There’s no way either of us could do it by ourselves if we didn’t have the investigators — the detectives from the city and the detectives from the sheriff’s department.”

Law enforcement investigators aren’t required on all cases. “If we go out on a call, say we’ve got an 86- or 90-year-old lady that’s more or less age has just got her and she has a doctor, we go ahead and pronounce her and then call the doctor to see if he’ll sign the death certificate,” Dixon says. “Most doctors sign them for older people if there was no evidence of anything being wrong — the doors were locked and she just died in her sleep, for example.”

If Dixon suspects a death may be criminal, she’ll call and ask for a detective to investigate.

“Murder investigations — that’s a totally new ball game,” she says, “because you’ve got so many people involved. Most of the time if we’ve got a murder involved, they get the GBI in here and then they do the investigation and then we follow up.”

Being coroner is a seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year job, but fortunately Dixon has three deputy coroners who help her.

“We try to send the one who is closest to a call,” Dixon explains. “That way we don’t hold up the fire departments or sheriff’s department or city police.”

Those helpers include Russell Wilson, a captain at Whitfield County Fire Station 5; Stacy Edmondson, who flies on a LifeForce helicopter; and Randy Goodwin, Whitfield EMS.

Sheriff Scott Chitwood campaigned with Dixon in 1992 as they both sought elected office for the first time. He showers her with high praise, saying she is “great to work with.”

“Not only do I consider her a professional cohort, Bobbie Dixon is a good friend of ours,” Chitwood says. “I have the highest respect for her, and she serves the public very well in her capacity.”



Growing up in Resaca

Dixon was born in Gordon County at the family home on Mount Zion Road in Resaca on Dec. 23, 1937, daughter of Hoyt and Lottie Covington.

She gives the credit to her parents for instilling a strong work ethic in her. In fact, she was a straight-A student through the 11th grade, but then she had to drop out of school to help take care of the family farm.

“Daddy got blood poisoning in his hands and was down for a year,” Dixon recalls. “He liked to have lost both hands. We had 38 acres of cotton in the field, and me and the neighbors had to gather the cotton so I had to quit school. I went back later and got my GED.”

Hard work was no stranger to the Covington family.

“I wouldn’t take nothing for my raising,” Dixon says. “I pretty well think I can survive. We didn’t have anything. My mother and daddy worked; we lived paycheck to paycheck. We depended on the cotton, but I wouldn’t take nothing for my raising. I guess that’s the most important thing to me was my raising.

“We learned to respect our mother, our daddy,” she says. “We learned to respect other people. There was no cursing, there was no ignorant stuff being done. I just had a good mama and daddy. We just had a good life. We were poor, but we had a good life.”

That will to survive has come in handy for Dixon more than once.

For instance, there was that terrible Groundhog Day in 1966 when her daddy died, their house burned and her husband totaled their truck — all in the same day.

“We’ve had some good times in our lifetime, some bad ones, too,” she says. “But the good always outweighed the bad. You know, people don’t think about that. They just jump to conclusions and they don’t look back and say, well, the good times will always outweigh the bad. The bad don’t last. It’ll be spur-of-the-moment stuff, but the good times are something to keep and cherish. So we took that as that and kept going.”

She’s also had to battle cancer twice, the most recent just a few months ago.

“I’ve had a lot of surgeries, but that was a rough surgery,” she says of her double mastectomy performed on Oct. 11, 2012. “God’s been with me. They’re saying I’ve beat it, so that’s two cancers I’ve beat. I had uterine cancer back in ’88, and I beat that one. Now I’m shooting for this one.”



Her one true love

Bobbie met her future husband when she was just a child.

“He used to ride by my house on a bicycle when we were 7 or 8 years old,” she recalls. “They were our neighbors and lived about a mile from my house. He’d slip off and ride by my house on his bike. We went to school together. We were just always together. We always worked together.”

She remembers that he used to sit behind her in class and “kick my seat,” she says with a chuckle.

Their first date was at the old Martin Theater in downtown Calhoun. “We dated almost a year before we got engaged, and then we got married on Groundhog Day,” she said. At least that bad day in 1966 had a silver lining since it was their anniversary.

Their union lasted a little over 50 years, through good times and bad, until Donald died in July 2007.

“Fifty years … loved every one of ’em,” she says. “He was the only guy I ever went with, and I was the only girl he ever went with. We were just together all the time. That was the love of my life. He was a sweetheart.”

She cherishes the memories, including one shortly after his funeral.

“I’ve always fed cats at the old church behind my office,” Dixon says. “I had been trying to catch this one kitten ever since it came up there but couldn’t catch him. Well, we were going to the cemetery to see the flowers after his funeral, and that kitten came up to me and just sat at my feet and looked up at me. I reached down and picked it up and it laid up on my shoulder and slept the whole time we went to the cemetery till we got back home and I woke it up to feed it. I’ve still got that cat. I said, Donald sent me that cat. You can rub his back now, and if you rub it one way, it makes a perfect angel on his back.”



Crying harder

Just because she’s been coroner for more than 20 years doesn’t mean Dixon has grown immune to death.

“I leave the scene a lot of times crying harder than the families,” she says, “especially a child. It gets to me on a child. You just don’t get children overnight. You don’t get over a lot of cases overnight, but it’s something you learn to cope with and you’ve got to go on because you’ve got a job to do.”

Through the years, she’s seen the harm that comes from drug abuse and offers this friendly advice for young people: “Please open your eyes and don’t mix those drugs because when you mix ’em, they’re lethal! I see that a lot. Oh Lord, yes.”

It’s heartbreaking to see a young person that hasn’t lived his life just throw it away, she says. “That’s like throwing water out the door,” she says. “Nothing to look forward to.”

She’s seen enough suicides to know firsthand the heartache they can leave behind for the rest of the family. “It’s not only embarrassing for the family, but it hurts the heart, it hurts the heart.”

While she’s heard some coroners approach their job in a non-emotional manner, she says that’s not for her.

“I can’t be that way,” she says. “I’ve got to be there for my families, and they are my families to me. I just get attached to them, and I love them. I can’t help it. It’s just in me to be that way.”