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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

June 10, 2005

All her world's a stage

by Annette Hacker

It isn't every actress who can portray Prudie Cupp in the down-home musical Pump Boys and Dinettes, belt out prison matron Mama Morton's anthem - "When You're Good to Mama, Mama's Good to You" - in Chicago, and steal the show in a community theater production of Cabaret.

And it isn't every day you'd expect to find her working in Iowa State's facilities planning and management department. But there she is, playing the role of project manager: the talented and versatile Kerry Dixon-Fox.

Dixon-Fox is an architect now, a 10-year veteran of FP&M who originally joined Iowa State as a customer relations specialist, tracking all facilities work for the colleges of Agriculture, Engineering and Family and Consumer Sciences, as well as the Parks Library. In 2002, she was promoted to project manager. Dixon-Fox now is the point person on two highly visible campus projects: the $9 million Morrill Hall renovation, and the Knapp-Storms residence hall demolition in July, expected to be Iowa's largest-ever implosion.

Talk to Dixon-Fox for a while, and you start to figure out that she's one of those people who probably could have done just about anything she wanted. (And you still like her in spite of it.) She wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life until just before she headed off to the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1987, but there were glimmers of where her career path might lead, even growing up.

It turns out she liked working backstage as much as being on stage. She enjoyed building elaborate sets, ultimately serving as scene designer or technical director for 30 shows, from high school to summer stock to community theatre. Dixon-Fox nurtured her love of the theatre as a hobby for more than 15 years, but says she never intended to make a living at it.

It was earlier on that someone should have seen the signs of a budding young architect.

"I stole my brothers' Legos," Dixon-Fox confessed.

Blame it on Mr. Boehm

From there, Dixon-Fox took drafting and shop classes in eighth grade.

"When I hit my senior year in high school, there was finally a hole in my schedule that I didn't have to fill with a college pre-requisite course. So I took 'Introduction to Architectural Drafting,'" Dixon-Fox said. "Mr. Boehm, the industrial arts teacher, entered my work in a statewide technical drawing competition."

In that contest in her home state of Illinois, Dixon-Fox said competition from the well-established technical high schools was fierce, and the winners were typically "guys from the tech schools."

Dixon-Fox vividly recalls the awards ceremony in which she received second place, missing first by just one point. As she walked to the stage, from across the auditorium she heard, "'s a girl!"

"That (award) was the main deciding factor of why I went into architecture," Dixon-Fox said.

Architecture school at Notre Dame was rigorous, Dixon-Fox said. Of the 100 students who began in the program her freshman year, only 37 remained in the second year -- and only nine of those were women.

"Our professors were very old school," she said. "One told us, 'Girls don't belong in this field.'"

Undeterred, in her final year of college Dixon-Fox served as a teaching assistant to the faculty member who'd made that comment. She grew to respect him, she said.

"He was deliberately goading us, trying to toughen us up -- knowing what we would encounter in the working world," Dixon-Fox said.

On the job

After graduation, Dixon-Fox worked in a private architecture firm in Bloomington, Ill. She quickly became bored sitting behind a drafting table.

"Unless you'd been there for quite some time, you never got to work with clients," she said.

From there, she spent six years as the campus planning analyst at Illinois State University in Normal before coming to Iowa State in 1995.

Dixon-Fox feels at home in a university environment. Her mother is assistant director of the Russian and East European Center at the University of Illinois. And Dixon-Fox herself said she appreciates the intellectual atmosphere, the diverse people and problem solving that make a university an exciting place to work.

"I love my job," she said. "Some people work to make a living, but I put a lot of me in what I do."

At Iowa State, Dixon-Fox manages up to 15 capital projects at any time. She also oversees campus accessibility projects -- for instance, making existing restrooms and laboratories accessible to persons with disabilities.

"That's not something you can do in two weeks," she said.

As a project manager, Dixon-Fox likens her job to that of a tugboat captain who keeps a journey on course. Project managers at Iowa State work with building occupants, architects and the facilities personnel who will support the building. They gather ideas, build consensus and keep projects on time and on budget.

High-visibility projects

Dixon-Fox expects her proudest work will be the Morrill Hall renovation, the most difficult production in which she's had a role.

"We're taking an old building and putting highly technical, highly controlled spaces within it - University Museums, the textiles and clothing collection in which we're dealing with extremely ancient pieces of fabric -- plus classroom space and offices in a building we can't make any bigger," Dixon-Fox said. "This is a building that everyone who has come through this university has some memory of. It holds such a place on central campus."

But the Towers implosion will be center stage next month, long before Morrill Hall is completed. Dixon-Fox will attempt to respond to hundreds of questions, direct the contractor and subcontractors, and ensure project safety -- all while thousands of interested alumni, community members, students, staff, faculty and the media watch. In the end, she'll have nothing to show for it but a little dust and two 40-foot piles of rubble.

Her life's work isn't so different from the theatre, Dixon-Fox said.

"So much of architecture is taking what the client wants and making it come alive for them, versus the theatre, in which you're taking the director's vision and making it come alive for an audience. I'm just an interpreter."

Giving back

In addition to her assigned duties in FP&M, Dixon-Fox has been vice president and president of the Professional and Scientific Council. She has served on the University Committee on Disabilities, is finishing up a three-year term on the P&S Classification Review committee, and has been asked to serve on the University Committee on Women. Dixon-Fox also once worked in a half-time administrative intern position in the president's office (under Martin Jischke) and served on President Gregory Geoffroy's first budget advisory committee.

She's a passionate advocate for the rights of women and children, and worked to establish a central Iowa chapter of Zonta International -- a service club that strives to improve the status of women worldwide.

At home

In their little free time, Dixon-Fox and her husband, Rick Fox (a former ISU landscape architect who now oversees commercial contracting for Country Landscapes), enjoy doing yard work at their three-acre home in rural Ames. They often take son Jackson, age 4, to the farmers' market, the Bookmobile and the ISU horse barns.

And Dixon-Fox would like to travel more, perhaps back to Rome, where she lived for a year during college. It was there that, in a Forrest Gump-like moment, she was hired by a talent scout to do print modeling for Coca-Cola. It wasn't too tough, Dixon-Fox recalled -- just pose among the ruins on Tiber Island and drink free, ice-cold Coke with the photogenic.

Don't bother asking to see the advertisements from that one-day shoot so long ago, because she didn't even keep them. But, just so you know, there's someone kind of famous working over in FP&M.

Kerry Dixon-Fox

Kerry Dixon-Fox. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Summer project

One project swallowing a lot of Kerry Dixon-Fox's time this spring and summer is the demolition of Knapp and Storms residence halls.


"I stole my brothers' Legos."

Kerry Dixon-Fox