Sitting in a crowded Arkadelphia restaurant during a busy weekday lunch, hardly five minutes of an hour goes by without Martha Dixon casting a smile and a wave toward someone she knows, or at least someone who knows her.
Perhaps that's to be expected when you've called the community home your entire life, staying active in town and in its politics, but even more so when you've achieved the self-made success that Dixon has, overcoming hardships of her situation in life to build a business, become an internationally recognized clothing designer and then see the heart of her operation damaged once by tornadoes and ultimately destroyed by fire.
After all that, it might be a wonder to some that Dixon can smile at all, but it's a gesture that comes easy of long habit and, to be honest, she wouldn't have it any other way.
"If I had it to do all over again, I'd do it," she said.
"I tell people all the time, if I die and come back again, I'd come back just as I am. I've done things I'd never even dreamed of."
A lifelong resident of Clark County, Dixon, 62, was the seventeenth of 20 children born to the late James and Beatrice Smith. She grew up in Arkadelphia and went to Peake High School there.
Being from a large family, she said, they oftentimes had to make their own clothes, and for that reason, Dixon was very early introduced into the field that would become her career: fashion design.
"I remember the very first dress I ever created," she said. "I cut it out of a brown paper bag. I made the pattern, went and bought the fabric, then I made my dress." Dismayed no schools in Arkansas offered a degree in design, Dixon pursued her higher education through a correspondence course offered by the Commercial Technical Institute in Little Falls, N.J. It was a three-year program, but "I finished it in two." But her career would wait for a few years. On Dec.
22, 1967, she married Huie L. Dixon, who worked at Reynolds Metals Co., and together they adopted a son, Christopher, the couple's only child. Dixon was staying at home raising him when her husband was unexpectedly laid off, and it was then she decided to start a business, Martha's Design.
"So I started out ... designing gowns and taking them to the upscale boutiques in Little Rock," said Dixon, recalling that more than a few of the stores "closed their doors in my face," thinking the gowns "homemade." But their tastes proved an ill choice, at least for them. Dixon found some success - and then fate found her when a shopper by the name of Hillary Clinton happened into one of the stores that carried Martha's dresses and took a liking to them. Clinton bought one and later tracked down the designer to make a request.
"She called or wrote, I can't remember which, and told me that if they won the 1986-87 [ gubernato-rial] election, she wanted me to design the inaugural gown," Dixon said. "That really introduced me to politics. I wanted to make sure they won the election so I could design the dress!"
Both outcomes came about, and those same boutiques who had earlier turned Dixon away were now clamoring for her gowns. She was able to pick and choose where they were placed, she said.
The same success again visited the self-made designer in 1992, when Clinton contacted her and again asked that she make her inaug ural gow n should the Arkansas couple win the White House. That design was ultimately featured in People magazine and on ABC's Business World. Today it hangs in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Dixon also began to branch out. In addition to the design company, she started Dixon Manufacturing, which produced uniforms used by health care institutes, nursing schools (at one time, every school in the state used them, she said) and food processing industries. A subsidiary, Martha's K ids, created and marketed public and private school uniforms all over the country and eventually internationally.
She also continued her political work at county, state and even national levels - receiving commendations at every step. She served as treasurer for Jimmie Lou Fisher's 2000 gubernatorial campaign and is a Democratic National Committee Woman. This year, she was once again tapped by Clinton, this time to serve as co-chair of the New York senator's presidential campaign in Arkansas (Clinton won the state's primary by a wide margin).
But Dixon's prosperity has not been without setbacks. In the late 1990s, her factory suffered a reported $50,000 in damages from the tornadoes that ravaged the town. Then, in February 2006, it burned to the ground altogether.
"It hurt me like losing a child when my business burned," she said. "To lose something I grew and raised up for 20 years, it was devastating."
The loss was felt all the more keenly for all that she went through to build it up - being both a woman and black and working at a time in whichboth factored against her. Borrowing money to start her factory, she said, took three times as long as it might have taken someone of a different appearance.
"When I f irst started my business, t hat w a s a cha llenge. There were no A frican-American businesses in Clark County. Sure, there were black beauty shops and black funeral homes, but a business that serves all people? There wasn't any."
Yet despite losing the factory, Dixon said she's still "wonderfully blessed." She still does "good business" producing uniforms for corporate clients -- and without the overhead by hiring out the sewing to a company in Hamburg. She's still involved in politics, too, but thinks twice about accepting any appointments or commitments that get offered.
"You gotta think about yourown self," she said. "Life is not for politics. It used to be, and that's OK. [But now] I have a life beyond politics."
And, really, she asks, what's left? She's gotten to see everything from the Governor's Mansion to the White House, staying a night in the Lincoln Bedroom. Her business has afforded her a chance to indulge in a passion for travel, from South Africa to London and points in between.
"Growing up, I never dreamed I'd see those things," she said.
As for how that came about, how she went from being the seventeenth child of 20 in rural Clark County to being recognized by everyone -- a renowned designer and businesswoman, a former member of more than a dozen public and private boards and commissions, honored by industry magazines, her political party,churches, the Red Cross and ultimately in 2005 being inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame -- Dixon said her secret to success is fairly simple, but not easy.
"I'd say it was determination," she said. "Starting your business, that's when you want to throw up your hands. But once I got it started, I wouldn't let anything stop me."
matter of fact
My age: 62
My family: Husband, Huie, of 40 years, and son, Christopher, 33
My most important possession: My family
My biggest fear: Losing them
Someday I will: Sit down and relax
My favorite quote: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
My last meal would be: Probably a hamburger and French fries