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From poverty to PhD: Riverdale's new mayor

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

At 58 years old, Riverdale mayor-elect Evelyn Wynn-Dixon has traveled down a long and rocky path to get to where she is today.

In last Tuesday's election, she beat her rival, incumbent mayor Phaedra Graham by a 2-to-1 margin. Today, at Riverdale City Hall at 7 p.m., she will be sworn in, during the city's regular business meeting and will take office Jan. 1.

At one time, however, Wynn-Dixon -- who currently serves at the vice president of communications and case management at Metropolitan Hospice in Marietta -- lived a very different life.

A native of Atlanta, she went to Fort Valley State University at the age of 19 with dreams of obtaining a medical degree. Only a few months after she got there, however, she became pregnant by her childhood boyfriend and had to drop out of school.

When Wynn-Dixon's oldest child, William, was only six weeks old, her mother, Sarah Dorsey Favors, died of a stroke. It was after her mother's death that Wynn-Dixon's life began to fall apart. "When she died, my world crumbled," said Wynn-Dixon. "I thought my mom was too beautiful to die."

The death thrust Wynn-Dixon into the role of matriarch for her six siblings, and then two others came along when her father remarried a few years later. Unmarried and living with one child, Wynn-Dixon stayed at home in the historic Peoplestown area until she married George Wynn, in her mid-twenties.

She would go on to have three additional children with her first husband, who later walked out on the marriage, leaving Wynn-Dixon with four children in a house where the rent was several months past due.

"Back then, you didn't question your husband," said Wynn-Dixon. "I didn't realize that he wasn't paying the rent."

Eventually, an eviction notice came and Wynn-Dixon, her four small children, and all of her possessions were put out on the street. "Not only did I become homeless, I lost everything I had to a rainstorm," she said. "My furniture was so cheap, that it just burst."

A sibling came to Wynn-Dixon's aid offering all she had -- a mattress on the living room floor for Wynn-Dixon and her four children to sleep on. It was during that time that Wynn-Dixon walked to an overpass and contemplated suicide.

While at the bridge, looking at the impending traffic below, the wisdom of her mother came to her mind and she began to realize what the word "favor" really meant, Wynn-Dixon said.

"She left me with a blessing, because she said whatever I am, she is," said Wynn-Dixon of her mother. From that day forward, Wynn-Dixon was determined to make something of her life and achieve some of the dreams she had been denied earlier.

"My feeling was what did I do to deserve this, and what am I going to do now," said Wynn-Dixon. "The answer came with education."

With the help of her siblings, she got a one-bedroom, government apartment and began attending nursing school in the evenings. Eventually, she was able to move into a better apartment and attended Atlanta Metropolitan College, earning an associate of science degree in philosophy and social work. Later, she went on to obtain a bachelor's and a master's degree from Georgia State University and the University of Georgia, respectively, concentrating in gerontology.

In 2002, Wynn-Dixon obtained a Ph.D., in public health from Hamilton University. The same year, she bought her first new car, a black Volvo "with the sticker on it" and her first new home in the Villages of Bridlewood subdivision in Riverdale, where she currently resides.

"That's why I call my life my 'Sarah and Abraham experience,' " said Wynn-Dixon. "My latter days are my better."

Wynn-Dixon attributes her success to God, a strong family unit, and her father, Grover Willie Favors, Jr., -- still living -- who never let their family separate after her mother died.

"Today is not just a victory for me," said Wynn-Dixon. "It's a victory for those who believed in me."