“His last campaign was saving other people’s lives," a close friend tells PEOPLE about Larry Dixon's final message

By Sean Neumann
December 11, 2020 01:55 PM
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Sen. Larry Dixon
Former Alabama state Sen. Larry Dixon
| Credit: Phillip Rawls/Montgomery Advertiser via AP

Moments before he was put on a ventilator and then died from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) last Friday, a former Alabama state senator gave his wife a final warning to make sure others took the pandemic seriously, a close friend remembers.

Larry Dixon, a longtime Alabama state lawmaker who retired in 2010, died at 78 shortly after telling wife Gaynell to “please tell everybody to be careful,” Dixon’s friend Dr. David Thrasher tells PEOPLE.

Thrasher, a local pulmonologist, says Gaynell shared her husband’s final words and gave the doctor her blessing to spread the message.

“'I slipped up, I made a mistake,' " Thrasher says Dixon had told his wife after contracting the virus at what the doctor says was "a small gathering" weeks ago while outdoors with friends.

Four others tested positive in connection with that gathering, including Dixon's wife.

Gaynell has "turned the corner," according to Thrasher, who says the Dixons' daughters Elizabeth and Catherine are caring for their mother at their Montgomery home. (PEOPLE's messages with Gaynell were not returned.)

Sen. Larry Dixon
Alabama state Sens. Gerald Dial (left) and Larry Dixon in 2005
| Credit: Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/AP

For more than two and a half decades, Dixon represented the state’s 25th Senate district, which covers Montgomery, Elmore and Crenshaw counties in the southeastern part of the state.

A Republican, he was first elected to the state’s House of Representatives in 1978 and then was elected to the state’s Senate in 1983, where he remained until he retired a decade ago.

Dixon’s career in local government stretches back to 1975, when he was a Montgomery City Council member.

“He devoted his life to service to this great city,” Perry Hooper, a former state representative and current member of the Republican State Executive Committee, wrote in an Alabama Daily News op-ed, adding that he was “still in shock” over Dixon’s death.

“Larry, although not a Montgomery native, loved his adopted hometown as much as anyone. He devoted his life to service to this great city,” Hooper wrote. “He was a great legislator, a man of great moral character, and a devoted and loving husband and father.”

Dixon was also the chairman of the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners for 35 years, from 1981 until his retirement in 2016.

“We are forever grateful for his distinguished service to the medical profession and to the State of Alabama,” the board wrote in a statement. “He set an incredible example of service for us all.”

Thrasher tells PEOPLE that Dixon had taken the virus and social distancing precautions seriously throughout the pandemic, wearing a mask and abiding by local guidelines.

But Dixon made a "slip up" by going out with a group of friends at an outdoor local restaurant, Thrasher says.

He later collapsed at his home, according to Thrasher, and spent two weeks in the hospital before being he was put on a ventilator and died last Friday — only after sharing his story as a reminder for others to stay safe.

“His last campaign was saving other people’s lives," Thrasher says.

Dixon's group of friends are already planning to "plant a tree or do a memorial," according to Thrasher, but they'll wait until next summer when they hope a coronavirus vaccine is widely available and they can hold a ceremony outdoors.

"We’re going to have a celebration of life," Thrasher says. "Not a funeral, but a celebration of life."

At least 3,985 people in Alabama have died from COVID-19 as of Thursday, while at least 280,187 people in the state have been infected, according to a New York Times tracker.