LUTZ — Mason Dixon's life is an open book.
Fans of Q105 FM's “Mason in the Mornings” oldies rock show get to hear colorful chapters on a regular basis — about a radio and music career that spans more than four decades; his passion for classic cars and his Harley; his love of all things Southern; and his fierce devotion to his family, faith and country.
And every holiday season, listeners get an earful about one of Dixon's most visible contributions to the community: Mason Dixon's Christmas Wish Fund, a nonprofit charity he founded with Patricia Crawford, his best friend and wife of 37 years.
“It's emotional. It's meaningful,” he says of playing Santa to single moms on a tight budget, people dealing with grave illnesses, grandparents struggling to care for grandchildren, military veterans fallen on hard times. The charity directly distributes gifts of cash, toys or certificates to recipients in time for Christmas, made possible by listener donations and sponsors. It's also supported by fundraising venues such as car shows, golf tournaments and a holiday cookbook.
“To see the direct impact it has on people's lives while I'm still on this Earth is such a blessing,” Dixon says. “It never stops amazing me.”
When I wrote you my Christmas wish, I was very depressed. My husband was sick and has not worked for two years and I have not had hot water or heat for a year. After I wrote the letter, I thought I would never hear from you because there are a lot of people worse off than me.
When I got the call at work, I was speechless. I don't remember much or if I even said thank you. The next day I had my gas turned on. I thought this was the best present ever.
Dixon is the voice of the operation, reading heartfelt letters and emails on air that were sent to the Christmas Wish Fund. He and Crawford have led this mission for two decades.
That first year, it was just an effort to get the community involved in helping out a few needy souls during the holidays, bolstered by $500 in seed money from the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant in St. Pete Beach. After Dixon shared those early letters on his show, “the lines would light up. People came out of the woodwork to lend a hand. Which tells me people are basically good.”
It has grown steadily over the years, from about 100 requests and 20 wishes granted the first year to about 1,000 letters now and some 250 recipients.
“We give it away until the money almost runs out, and then we do it all over again the next season,” says Dixon, 64.
The charity got a big boost in 2002 when the late Sen. Bill Young helped Crawford expedite the normally time-consuming process of securing a 501c3 status. Becoming a nonprofit put the charity into a new league. It now raises $80,000 to $110,000 a year, with 95 percent of the funds going to recipients living in the Tampa Bay area.
“It's about as hands-on as you can get,” Dixon says of the all-volunteer operation, run out of the radio station and the Lutz lakeside home the couple share with three spoiled dogs and one rescue cat. Indeed, Crawford — whose organizational skills are legendary — personally reads every request and checks them out for authenticity before making the selections.
“Facebook, Google Earth, sex offender sites, property tax records … anything that might send up a red flag,” she says. “One or two might slip by every year, but we're pretty diligent about making sure it's a legitimate request.”
When Dixon sees her sniffing over a poignant entry, he knows it will at least make it into the “maybe” pile. Crawford admits a certain weakness for older adults living on a fixed income who are now in a situation where they have to care for young children.
“She's the heart and soul,” Dixon says proudly.
Her biggest joy is granting the wish in person so she can see the joy on the recipient's face. That's why he calls his wife “Mrs. Christmas Wish.”
I received $800 from you wonderful people. But actually, I received a whole lot more. I don't know how to tell you how much it meant to me and my family this Christmas. Sometimes when you are at the end of your rope, when it seems there's no hope and no one cares about anyone but themselves, God has a way of saying I'm here, and there are those who care because I've made it so! I'm convinced that it's true that he has people everywhere. And you, sir, have proved to be one of those people.
Early on in his career, Jimmy Crawford from Memphis changed his on-air name to “Mason Dixon” — a symbolic reference to the cultural differences between the southern and northern states.
Radio took him all over the country, with stops in Mississippi, Connecticut, Tennessee, California, Alabama and two stints in Tampa — from 1978 to 1990, then back again to stay in 1991. In an industry populated by nomads and weakened by changing listening habits, Dixon stands out. He's earned his stripes by adapting to those changes — he streams three Internet stations from his “groovy” room at home — but he refuses to compromise his values.
“I don't think my parents earned $10,000 between the two of them, but they kept an immaculate house and gave us a secure, loving home,” he says. “Even more important, they instilled in us to respect others and give back.”
He credits his strong Christian faith for being his guiding light. Being a good husband and father — he and Crawford raised two daughters, both married and working in their chosen fields — always came first in his life and it's paid off. They're a tight-knit clan.
He says he's equally blessed in his long-standing career, where he's racked up numerous awards, including Billboard Magazine's “Air Personality of the Year.” But he also knows how quickly everything can go away.
In June 2005, shortly after noon on a sunny day, Dixon was driving his restored 1971 Dodge Challenger when he was hit head-on by an SUV that spun out of control. He suffered a collapsed lung and broken ribs, and had his spleen removed.
“I think the angels were watching out for me,” he told the Tribune three years later. “I came close to dying, but I guess a higher power felt I wasn't done here yet.”
That brush with death reinforced his desire to press even harder in making a difference. The Christmas Wish Fund is the perfect outlet.
“When something that traumatic happens,” Dixon says, “you start thinking about why you were spared. I don't take a single day for granted. Whatever I can do to make someone's life a little brighter, I'm going to find a way.”
I am at a loss for words to express my gratitude. I was already overwhelmed when you called and read my sister's letter and told me that I was to receive $750 and furniture. But then I received another huge check from you all. To think I could actually pay bills and buy presents this year was totally out of my thoughts. Thank you does not begin to express the burdens that you have lifted off my mind.