Five months in the hospital. Six weeks in an intensive care unit. Allison Dickson spent the first half of 2014 fighting for her life. She suffered respiratory failure, went into shock, and her organs started shutting down. At age 34, she was put on life support three times. “I went downhill bad,” Dickson said, looking back. “I don’t remember much, which is a good thing. I don’t think it was pleasant.” But out of that difficult time, two endowed scholarships at Central Texas universities are now awarded annually in Allison Dickson’s name.
Dickson had already spent much of her life in and out of hospitals. At 15 months old, doctors told her parents, Joe and Johnnie Dickson of Temple, their daughter had a rare form of muscular dystrophy; don’t expect her to live longer than another year. Her parents put braces on her feet and assisted her with a walker when she was a preschooler, but she has never been able to walk on her own. Today she gets around in an electric wheelchair she calls the “Jag.” She takes three meals a day through a feeding tube.
Yet Dickson’s disability never defined her or impeded her academic career. She graduated third in the Temple High School class of 1997. Then she earned English and psychology degrees at Southwestern University in Georgetown, graduating with honors. Next it was off to Waco, where she attended Baylor Law School and earned a law degree in 2007, finishing first in her class. Afterward, Dickson passed the state bar exam. “I like to prove people wrong,” she said, with a smile and a bit of mischief in her eyes. Through it all, Dickson has coped with a life of adversity by employing good humor and tenacity with the help of loving parents.
But this lengthy hospital stay was a serious setback even for a woman with enough grit and gumption to inspire the most dispirited person. Again she persevered.
In June 2014, five months after she was admitted to the hospital, Dickson was strong enough to return home. That’s when she looked at the future through a new set of eyes. She had overcome another obstacle, but her mortality was more tangible than ever. A woman with a serious disability, someone who had faced countless health problems and overcome them, was ready for a new challenge. So she went to work making a difference in the world.
“That was an eye-opener, that I’m not going to be here forever,” Dickson said. “I started thinking about how am I going to be able to continue to help, uplift and inspire people after I’m not here. It really is about paying it forward. So many people encouraged me along the way. So many people have given me that boost, that kind word, that prayer. It makes you think how do I want to spend the time I have left here. For me, I want to give back.”
Dickson then contacted her alma mater about establishing a scholarship for a member of her sorority, Tri Delta. An annual gift would help one student with tuition.
A great idea, said Taylor Kidd, associate director of annual giving at Southwestern University in Georgetown. But he suggested something bigger. So Kidd visited Dickson at her Temple home. “I looked at Allison and I said, you have lived this amazing life, one full of purpose and hard work and had such an impact on so many people. I think we could do more. Let’s think about creating an endowed scholarship, which is at least $25,000. So forever there would be a scholarship in Allison’s name.”
But raising the money was yet another challenge to a woman whose life was a series of obstacles, one after another. As it turned out, she need not have worried.
“It was a little bit of everything. People wrote letters. We sent emails. People posted on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. It was all hands on deck,” Kidd said. “Once people found out we wanted to raise this money in Allison’s name, they just came out of the woodwork. It really was a grassroots effort that just blew us all away in terms of the number of people and how quickly we got to this goal. Within two or three months, we had all the money we needed and then some to endow the award so it would be here forever.”
In its first year, scholarship money was awarded to three students. Last year, one student earned the award. The number of winners is determined by the strength of the candidates, Kidd said. If two or three students have strong applications, the scholarship committee will find a way to help all of them. Now in its third year, the scholarship is poised to help students in Dickson’s name in perpetuity.
“To those of us at Southwestern, Allison is an example of someone who has never given up. She puts her mind to something and she’s going to find a way to get there. The path from point A to point B for Allison may be winding, and it may be uphill or downhill, but she’s going to find a way to get there,” Kidd said. “She’s just a jewel and it’s a joy to get to know her. I feel really honored to be able to work with Allison because we’ve taken an idea she had and listened to it and found a way to make it more impactful for students at Southwestern.”
Second endowed scholarship
Word soon traveled north to Waco that Dickson had established an endowed scholarship at Southwestern University. Dickson recalls the friendly chiding she received from classmates. “My Baylor friends called and said, ‘Allison, what’s the deal?’” But Baylor had a minimum of $50,000 to establish a similar scholarship. She wasn’t ready to tackle another fundraising campaign, yet friends and classmates encouraged her to do what she has always done — amaze people with her infectious enthusiasm. Baylor gave her five years to raise the money. It took nine months.
An anonymous donor wrote a $10,000 check. But the bulk of the money, $25,000, was raised through a fundraiser in Temple — a movie under the stars at the Cultural Activities Center. Allison’s friend from high school, Bill DiGaetano, had moved to North Texas and operated a chain of Alamo Drafthouses, a popular cinema that sells food and drinks. DiGaetano marshaled the forces, and on an overcast evening in August 2016, one of Dickson’s favorite movies, “The Princess Bride,” played outdoors on a 46-foot screen for a crowd of about 1,500. A silent auction also brought in more revenue for aspiring Baylor Law School students. Dickson said seeing the crowd and watching the movie was, “A dream come true.”
Ethan Lange often sat beside Dickson in law school class at Baylor. He helped with fundraising for both scholarships. “She understands her story has an impact on other people. This is her legacy,” Lange said. “Every time you’re in her presence, life’s worries melt away. Everything you think is important, she turns it upside down. Somehow, she is just really positive.”
While attending Baylor Law School, Dickson forged a relationship with one of her professors, Elizabeth Miller. After graduation, Dickson worked from home as a research assistant, proofreader and editor for Miller. “She just has such a tremendously positive attitude and mind over body in terms of her ability to apply herself and persevere,” Miller said. “Law school is challenging and rigorous for anyone, and it was just an incredible experience to see Allison go through law school and maintain such a positive attitude the entire time and finish with an outstanding record.”
Miller said Dickson shines a little sunlight on everyone she meets, an inspiration to both faculty and students. “For her to be part of an effort to help future students achieve their dream of going to law school, I think is a very fitting honor for her and a way of people to express their admiration and impact she’s made on them,” Miller said. “She has always been so civic minded and been a part of giving back. It’s really gratifying to see her name attached to something here at the law school that will keep giving for years to come.”
A philanthropist’s heart
For the 2016 holiday season, Dickson collected donations that would buy stuffed owls for children at McLane Children’s Hospital in Temple. If anyone knows what it’s like to be in the hospital during holidays, it would be the girl from Temple who touched people’s hearts with her unbridled enthusiasm and good cheer. “This is my passion, helping others,” Dickson said, “I think I have a philanthropist’s heart.”
In 2008, Dickson lost her beloved father to cancer. His photo hangs on the wall near the front door of her Temple home, honoring the man who was at her side for almost 30 years. Dickson’s mother said her daughter’s story is a shining example of achievement for anyone with a disability. “When she sets her mind to do something, it’s done. Get out of the way. I can’t imagine it any other way. I wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s perfect.”
Dickson stays busy these days keeping in touch with former classmates and friends through various social media outlets. Her virtual world is a vibrant and dynamic place. Although muscular dystrophy has affected her life, Dickson won’t allow the disease to define it. “I’m one third tomboy, one third brainiac, and one third girly-girl, with a healthy dose of pop culture thrown in,” Dickson said. “The greatest compliments I ever receive is when people forget I’m in a wheelchair.”