‘IT’S ONE WORLD, AND IT’S A SMALL WORLD’
Sheldon Gardner St. Augustine Record USA TODAY NETWORK
St. Augustine resident Mike Dixon has a clock in his kitchen that’s set to Ukraine time.
It helps him plan his emails to people he met while serving in the Peace Corps.
Dixon, 72, is a historic preservation architect who used his background to serve in the organization from 2011 to 2016 in Ukraine, Kosovo and Armenia.
The Peace Corps recently recognized him as one of the top10 volunteers in the country by being nominated for the 2021 Lillian Carter Award, “which honors outstanding individuals who volunteered at age 50 or above,” according to a news release from the Peace Corps.
The award was created to honor Lillian Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s mother, who served in the Peace Corps in India as a health volunteer when she was 68.
The winner of the 2021 award was Carole Anne “Aziza” Reid, of New York, who served as a community organizational development Volunteer in Moldova from 2016 to 2018 and as a youth education volunteer in Eswatini from 2018 to 2020.
The Peace Corps received more than 70 nominations for the 2021 award.
“This is good news for older people to know that you can join later in life and share your life experiences,” Dixon said.
Dressed in a vyshyvanka, an embroidered traditional shirt worn in Ukraine, Dixon invited a couple of visitors into his home on Thursday.
A desire to serve
Photos, taken by Dixon, art and other items from Dixon’s travels decorate the walls and shelves of his home.
Dixon had been wanting to serve in the Peace Corps after college, but his dreams took a backseat initially because he was drafted into the Illinois Army National Guard as a combat medic during the Vietnam era — he served at VA hospitals in the U.S.
It wasn’t until later in life, after many years in architecture, that he was able to serve.
Established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps “sends Americans with a passion for service abroad on behalf of the United States to work with communities and create lasting change,” according to a news release. “Volunteers develop sustainable solutions to address challenges in education, health, community economic development, agriculture, the environment and youth development.
“Through their Peace Corps experience, volunteers gain a unique cultural understanding and a lifelong commitment to service that positions them to succeed in today’s global economy.”
Peace Corps volunteers promote understanding of the American people with other countries and help Americans better understand people from other countries.
When people think of the Peace Corps, they often think of volunteers who are fresh out of college, Dixon said.
But about 14,000 “older Americans” have served in the Peace Corps and helped further its “mission of promoting world peace and friendship,” Acting Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn said.
“The Lillian Carter Award is given to one outstanding senior volunteer who demonstrates that service– both at home and abroad–can be impactful at any age,” she said.See the top 10 2021 nominees below.
Making connections, sharing history
By the time he went into the Peace Corps, Dixon had a lot of experience to share.
He established his architecture practice in St. Charles, Illinois, and had the firm for more than 30 years.
While his “150 percent” Irish grandmother wanted him to be a priest, Dixon decided as a child to become an architect, he said.
In 9th grade as part of a career study of the profession, he wrote to architect Minoru Yamasaki, designer of the World Trade Center. Dixon received a response from Yamasaki encouraging him to develop both the artistic and logical sides of his mind.
“If you are good at both of those and really dedicated, I think there is a fine chance that you will become a good architect,” the letter says.
Dixon’s career includes a wide variety of projects, such as serving as historic preservation consultant and on-site architect for restoration of the capitol building in Cheyenne, Wyoming; historic preservation consultant for the restoration of Hotel Baker in St. Charles, Illinois, which is on the National Register of Historic Places; and design development and construction management of the Sandwich City Hall and Opera House in Illinois, he said.
During his time in the Peace Corps, Dixon did a lot of work as an architect. He focused in part on sharing and preserving history.
His first assignment was to Ukraine as a community development specialist, and he served there for three years. In 2015 and 2016, he was a response volunteer in Armenia and Kosovo.
Dixon said he was disappointed in Ukraine to see that history wasn’t taught very well.
Dixon took a group of children and teachers on a tour of a park in Ukraine that he was involved in redesigning. The park included a headstone recognizing a mass grave of victims of the Holodomer, a man-made famine engineered by the former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin that led to mass starvation in Ukraine.
The people on the tour weren’t familiar with the headstone; it was hidden behind trees.
“So when I did the redesign, I wanted to bring it out ... so you could see that,” he said.
Dixon also developed restoration drawings and specifications for a 15th century open air mosque in Prizren, Kosovo.
“This project and others, including two parks, were developed while working toward the preservation and recovery of the culture in Kosovo,” he wrote in a list of his activities.
In Lutsk, Ukraine, Dixon developed masonry repair and restoration drawings for the Lubart Castle, a mid-14th century structure.
“This project and others, including the design and construction of two outdoor theaters and the restoration of a historic gardener’s cottage (1812), were developed while working toward the preservation and recovery of the culture in Ukraine,” according to Dixon.
Among many activities Dixon took part in during his travels, he created guides to places he visited, such as a walking tour of Vinnytsia, Ukraine, highlighting historically interesting buildings such as religious structures, a memorial, museums and Maxim Gorky Park.
During one of his walking tours, Dixon hosted the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft and his staff, and the group appeared on the front page of a Vinnytsia newspaper.
Dixon also held English clubs in Vinnytsia; Kerch, Crimea; Gyumri, Armenia; and Pizren.
After his return from the Peace Corps, Dixon worked at the capitol building in Cheyenne before moving to St. Augustine in 2019. He visited his grandmother in the area growing up.
“I always wanted to come back to my roots,” he said.
He is still using his talents. He’s part of the city of St. Augustine’s Corridor Review Committee, which watches for compliance with design standards along San Marco Avenue, King Street and Anastasia Boulevard. He’s also leading a grant project to upgrade the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center building.
Creating lasting bonds
As the “Ukraine time” clock on his kitchen wall indicates, Dixon has made lasting connections from his journeys.
Among them is an artist whose work is on Dixon’s walls, Besim Danjolli, whom he met in Kosovo.
“There’s some good friends you make along the way, and that’s what it’s about is making friends around the world,” Dixon said.
Dixon plans to give a talk about his Peace Corps journey at the Saint Augustine Camera Club meeting at 6 p.m. Aug.19 at the Guy Harvey Resort in St. Augustine Beach. Visitors are welcome.
“I think I got more out of it than it’s possible to give because, well, you learn about patience. You learn about other cultures. I would encourage young people to travel,” he said, adding that people should visit other countries.
“It opens up your mind and makes you understand that it’s one world, and it’s a small world,” he said.
Brian J. Tumulty of USA TODAY contributed to this report.