Story by Murray Schneider
One of Glen Park’s own, Dennis Nix, 60, died on November 22, a victim of a suspected hit-and-run motor vehicle incident. The collision occurred around 2:30 a.m., only blocks from Nix’s Mangels Avenue home. Traveling on his scooter near Monterey Boulevard and the BART station, Nix, who had earlier left a Front-Runners end-of-the year awards party at the United Irish Cultural Center on Sloat Boulevard, was struck and pronounced dead at the scene.
Nearly a month later, friends of the Staten Islander remain saddened at the Sunnyside resident’s death.
“Dennis was a remarkable person, primarily because he didn’t see himself as particularly remarkable,” said Shari Weefur, a friend and colleague who worked with Nix at MCI Communication Corporation in the early 1980s. “He was amazingly balanced in his approach to life and people and, consequently wound up with a mixed group of friends who adored him.”
Survived by his 96-year old mother, a sister and two brothers whom he planned on visiting in New York for Thanksgiving, Nix never strayed that far from his East Coast working class roots, still speaking with a tell-tale and oft-time booming New Yorker’s accent.
“Dennis played the curmudgeon, often heard saying, ‘I’m not trying to bust your chops,’” wrote Joe Leal, a close friend of Nix’s for 29 years. “He could play the disgruntled old man, but for Dennis’ life was not so bad after all and there was always the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Dennis was a huge presence,” commented Michael D’Arata, another close friend in a November 26 The Bay Area Reporter article. “It was like having New York City in your living room. Dennis was loud and not the most diplomatic, but his heart was as big as it could be.”
Nix’s charitable endeavors provide no better testimony of this.
Nix volunteered his time for different lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) causes and also as a benefits counselor at Positive Resource Center, which works with individuals struggling with HIV/AIDS.
But Nix, a financial planner, still had time to scratch an inveterate travel bug, engage in scuba diving as far away as Cozumel, Mexico, and exercise as both a jogger and cyclist. He continued active memberships in LGBT sports club such as the SAGA North Ski and Snowboard Club and Northern California Rainbow Divers.
“Dennis sold his motorcycle and bought a scooter,” emailed Marcie Cohen, who worked with Nix at MCI and considered him a close family friend. “He lived so close to BART, and he thought he could rent a car if he needed one for weekend trips.”
Dennis Nix came to California at the beginning of the 1980s, landing a job a MCI in technical support, eventually ending his tenure there in 2002 after he became a senior manager. His goal was to become a financial planner and earn a Social Science BA from San Francisco State University, which he eventually did after ten years. He graduated summa cum laude.
“He went into financial planning because he wanted to deal with people one-to-one and help them make good decisions around their retirements,” said Michael D’Arata.
Nix had excellent training at MCI, honing the supportive roles in which he excelled.
“He helped me so much with technical support,” offered Marcie Cohen, speaking about her early days at MCI, “and he was so supportive of me in 2007 when I was widowed. When my daughter played in a Berkeley classical music concert Dennis characteristically arranged for five friends to attend.”
Decades after his tenure at MCI, Nix leant an unsung hand to Sheri Weefer.
“In September I was searching for a new career, but was really bad at LinkedIn, which I learned is what eighty-five percent of employers are using to hire folks these days,” said Weefer, an admitted social media phobic. “One day I went to LinkedIn only to find that Dennis had written a lovely recommendation. I didn’t realize he knew. But that’s who Dennis was,” she said.
“Dennis only recently visited Michael D’Arata, recovering from knee surgery on the Friday evening before the fatal accident, bringing him pizza and talking politics,” added friend Terry Gauchat. “Frankly, it’s these little expressions of compassion that are so representative of his life.”
“These were the values that were instilled in him,” wrote D’Arata in The Bay Area Reporter piece, “to be involved in the community, to participate, to contribute, to not take, but to give as much as you can.”
Joe Leal and Nix only recently completed cycling the East Bay hills in preparation for a scheduled Nix bike ride through several New York boroughs.
“My wife, kids, and friends knew Dennis, so it went beyond just work at MCI where we were like a family,” said Leal. “He always asked about them and seemed to remember what was going on from the last time we talked.”
Adjectives such as balanced, authentic, gregarious, modest, loyal and straightforward roll off Nix’s friends’ lips as they attempt to wrap their minds around his sudden passing.
“He was straightforward, bold and unembarrassed to speak his mind,” said Audry DeLuca, thinking of an 18th and Castro Street LGBT community shrine established within days of his death. “Sometimes he ruffled feathers, sometimes he wore feathers. Always his heart was full, grand and generous.”
If there was one characteristic that all could agree upon, though, and one that bespeaks of Nix’s Staten Island and Sunnyside down-to-earthiness, it was his unpretentiousness.
“What I remember about Dennis is that he loved food,” recalled Joe Leal.
Nix was no Alice Waters foodie, by any length, however.
“He called me the week before his death to ask me what I was doing and then told me he was at the ‘happiest place on earth’ – Costco, grazing on samples and then following them up with frozen yogurt.”
“And then he laughed – it was an inside joke with my wife about his frugality and Costco.”
“He was always trying new eateries, but they weren’t the fanciest,” continued Leal. “My first lunch with Dennis was at the old San Francisco Transbay Terminal, a depressing, drab, poorly lit building out of a 1930s or 40s movie. There was a diner there and to date I haven’t had greasier food. Dennis frequented the place until it finally shut down.”
Gentrification continues taking its toll on this part of Mission Street, but its tony tentacles have yet to reach the outskirts of the Tenderloin, which Nix undoubtedly viewed as doppelgangers for his Manhattan Lower East Side’s cafeterias and Hell’s Kitchen automats.
“Once while returning from a MCI customer appointment,” continued Leal, “we stopped in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on some side street that Dennis had been eyeing for a while. It was so bad that he even crossed it off his list after we finished. Chez Panisse it wasn’t.”
Nix’s culinary frugality extended to his sartorial thriftiness.
“Dennis had little vanity when it came to his wardrobe,” recalled Marcie Cohen. “His IT support took him to Silcon Valley, and I’d tell him, Dennis, you have to look professional. At least buy a new pair of shoes. You know, he did, but year after year he’d simply have them resoled.”
Shari Weefur witnessed this stylistic simplicity.
“Early on, oh, almost 30 years ago, I visited MCI’s Network Operational Terminal and I see this guy, the Operations Manager. It was Dennis,” said Weefur. “I immediately developed a crush on him. I think it was the plaid shirt and the 501s that sent me over the edge.”
Nix may have been a bit cautious with a pair of wingtips and overly excited about Portuguese flannel, but his generosity knew few boundaries.
“Dennis always wanted people to be happy, look good and excel,” recalled Joe Leal. “He once bought a number of vouchers for his MCI sales group from the shoe shine guy at the foot of Market and California. I don’t know if any of us other than Dennis every got our shoes shined.”
If Nix saved a dime two on his wardrobe, he spared no expense on his globetrotting, a devotee of the maxim, “if you never leave home you’ll never fall into it.”
He scratched his travel itch early on, his brother Richard told mourners at Nix’s early December Staten Island Sacred Heart Church funeral service.
“Dennis was 11 years old when he decided he wanted to visit Philadelphia,” said Richard Nix, no mean feat for a sheltered Staten Island grade schooler.
Nix studied a map and determined how to get from Staten Island to Philadelphia by public transportation. He took the bus nearest his house to the ferry, which he hopped a bus to Manhattan and from there rode a subway and caught a train to Philly.
“He called home to my mother,” eulogized Richard Nix to a church crowded with friends and family. “He asked her what to do and she told him to reverse the trip and come home.”
Only recently Nix hopscotched to Turkey for another adventure and Marcie Cohen recalls Nix’s peregrinations this way:
“Dennis was a people person and loved trips to foreign places,” she said. “After he left MCI, he took a six month sabbatical to Madrid, leaning Spanish and immersing himself in its culture for six months.”
With all his wanderlust, those closest to him seem to agree that both residing in the Sunnyside with his dogs Maisy and Buddy and making frequent trips to the Empire State, which he often did three or more times a year to visit family, defined Nix. Truth be told, a case could probably be made that he was only on loan to San Francisco. While it was not uncommon to see him dressed to the nines in a tuxedo for a MCI holiday gala, Nix, frugal but generous to the delight of all those who appreciated him, seemed to embrace another travel tenet:
“If you never leave home, you never wear out the soles of your shoes.”
Behrend Joost, taking a gamble in the 1880s, bought up Glen Park real estate and called it Sunnyside. Men and women such as Nix gobbled up modest housing and bequeathed it to their children and then their grandchildren. They rode Joost’s street railway to and from places as distant as Butchertown and the Embarcadero, laboring in meaningful and productive work just as Dennis Nix did over one hundred years later while establishing 401k retirement contributions and revisiting home mortgages for his grateful clients.
Dennis Nix’s lived only a block from where Joost’s name now graces neighborhood street signs. The sun was still five hours from ascending on the morning this Staten Island native and San Francisco everyman was silenced, his New Yorker’s brassy baritone muted forever.
With a Bay Area celebration of his life tentatively planned for January 23, 2016, his life and passing will not go unnoticed.
“Dennis was one of the most authentic people I have every journeyed with,” said Shari Weefur. “If we have learned nothing from the fact that he lived I hope we are more alike than different. The world really needs that sentiment right now.”