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LETTERS: The Loss of One of Boone’s Finest Sons is Not Forgotten 

This holiday week is always a little difficult for me. At the same time the rest of the nation celebrates our independence, I am reminded that on July 5th, 1985, I lost a good friend and the Boone community lost one of its finest sons. I hope this letter reaches his family and friends so they will know that he is not forgotten, and his life has impacted me and everyone that knew him in immeasurable ways.

In the summer of 1985, I was an 18-year-old kid turned young soldier. I had graduated high school the summer before and left my small town in Tennessee to serve my country as a medic in the United States Army. After almost a year of training as an Orthopedic Technician,  I was finally assigned my first duty station at the United States Military Academy at West Point. There, I was assigned to the hospital that cared for the Cadets and their staff. Like all military units, it was a melting pot of kids from all over the country. We had kids from the country like me, kids from the inner city of Chicago, the cornfields of the Midwest, California, Puerto Rico, Samoa, and all parts in between. It was a great cultural experiment in diversity. The enlisted would often hang out on the front porch of the barracks and socialize after work and on the weekends. It was a great time in that no matter where we were from, we all just bonded together by hanging out, listening to music from some speakers hanging from someone’s window, and grilling whatever we could find to cook on the porch.  You might hear music from Hank Williams Jr., Van Halen, or the Gap band in no particular order. Everyone was represented out on that porch. race, religion, gender, politics, or background didn’t matter. We were all in this Army thing together. It was neat to see everyone come together like that. We could use more cookouts like that these days. 

It was one of these cookouts where I met this young African American kid from Boone North Carolina. His name was Mark Dixon. Mark was also 18 and on his first assignment as well. We were both far from our small town and were a little out of place living in upstate New York, a short ride from New York City. Mark was instantly likable, with a slow drawl, infectious smile, athletic build, booming singing voice, and unshakable faith which were all a large part of his charisma and charm. His strong smooth singing voice could make even Luther Vandross or George Benson turn their heads. Mark could be heard showing off that incredible singing voice in the showers where his voice would echo down the halls of the barracks. He could sing the latest Luther Vandross or some old gospel song or hymn with equal enthusiasm.  We started talking and I learned that we had a lot in common.  Both of us were from small southern towns and had passed on college for a different path. He had been a singer and I had played the saxophone, so we both loved music. We also learned that we both liked to fish and that is how we became great friends. The base at West Point is full of scattered mountain lakes that are full of bass and bream just waiting to be caught. We would meet up after work two or three times a week and head out to fish. The thing about fishing is that you get to know someone standing around waiting for fish to bite.  Mark and I talked about everything, but I specifically remember him talking about his life back home, his love of his family, the simple things in life, and his faith in the Lord. I was not a believer and had little use for any of that. I was more focused on my goals, girls, and partying than on any faith journey. But Mark was just different. He had this quiet confidence and peace that was unique and remarkable. Mark seemed to be an old soul trapped in an 18-year-old’s body at times.

On July 5th, 1985, we all had the day off and a bunch of folks from the company decided to go out to one of those mountain lakes where we used to fish and have a cookout.  I was on call, but since I was one of the few people who had a car, I drove a group out to the lake, including Mark. I had to go back to the hospital to check in and then I planned to return. I didn’t know that it would be the last time I would see my friend alive. Not long after I left, the group was just hanging out having a good time listening to music, grilling, and just goofing off as usual. The tragedy that was about to unfold was the last thing on anybody’s mind. There was a small dock on this little lake where people had gathered and were taking turns jumping into that cold spring-fed lake.  Mark was not a strong swimmer and was not even dressed in swim trunks. He had no plans for getting into the water that day. Unfortunately, a kid from a guard unit who was there on a temporary two-week assignment who did not even know Mark thought it would be funny to push Mark off the dock. Of course, he had no idea that Mark could barely swim, and as soon as Mark hit the water of that deep, cold mountain lake he never came back to the surface. In an instant, just like that, he was taken from all of us. 

He was eventually pulled from the water after being under for way too long and every effort was made to try to save him. Sadly, it was too late, and he was gone. I had just pulled up to the lake when he was being pulled from the water.  The shock and panic of everyone there were palpable. It was like this had to have been some tragic dream, but sadly it was all too real. Bear in mind also that these were all medics and by this point in our training and work had all seen our share of tragedy, trauma, and death.  However, when it is one of your own, it just hits differently. What followed were days and weeks of darkness and sadness that fell over the entire unit. None of us could believe he was gone.

I was personally bitter and mad at God because if he could allow this to happen to one of his most faithful believers, then what was the point of believing? I was also angry and resented the fact that God had taken Mark over something so seemingly innocent and stupid as a kid goofing off on the dock.  It was that anger and resentment that had me questioning my own beliefs and faith. However, the one thing that I kept coming back to over again was how confident Mark was in his faith and how no matter what happened to him he knew where he was going when he passed. He had no doubt he would be with the Lord.  His quiet faith and the way he lived his life were such a tremendous witness to me.  It was a real turning point in my faith journey. About a year later after wrestling with my own demons, I finally gave my life to the Lord, and I have been walking in Faith ever since. I credit Mark’s witness and example of how he lived as something God took from a tragedy and pain and used it to reach me and I am sure many others. Mark’s life and tragic loss set me on a path to eventually walk with the Lord for the rest of my life.  

In the years since I have been blessed. I eventually got out of the Army, went on to college, and then to law school. I have been blessed with a wife, two children, and a successful legal career. However, I often wonder what Mark’s life would have been like had he not been taken way too soon. I know he would have been a great husband and father. I always imagine that he would have been a great pastor, music minister, or maybe a teacher.  I tell my kids and others about him all the time. The most important thing I learned from him is that the way you live your life, the way you treat others, and your calm confident faith will be your legacy. I heard a preacher say once, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words”.  Mark certainly left his mark on me and everyone who knew him without the necessity of too many words.

I write this letter for Mark’s family, friends, and the entire Boone community so that they will know that one of their finest sons may be gone, but he is certainly not forgotten. For those who didn’t know him who might read this, I hope the story of his life and legacy blesses you.  I have tried to find some of his family online off and on for years to no avail. So, If anyone knows any of his people, please let them know that they were not the only ones who suffered a loss back in 1985. I also want them to know that his life and legacy live on with all of us who knew him. Mark’s impact on me has been shared many times over the last 39 years and will continue to be shared as long as I can continue to tell his story. 


Jeffrey Smith, Esq. 

 Tuscaloosa, Al.