From circus trapeze to Dayton cop, area woman lived extraordinary life


Highlights

After performing in water shows and circus acts, Dixie Hinders became one of the first armed women on the Dayton Police Department.

Dixie Hinders — a circus trapeze artist, professional aquatic performer, and one of the first women to become an armed Dayton cop — died last weekend. She was 88. 

She was never happy with the middle name — Gertrude — her Dayton parents Helen and Eugene Belt gave her at birth, so she took on another that seemingly evoked the exuberant, far-reaching life in store for Dixie Lee Belt. 

“She had a spirit and willingness to do things and to travel to places she had never been … She really wasn’t encumbered by the scariness of opportunities,” said her son James Hinders. “She just had that spirit about her of not having any boundaries … If you are timid or afraid in any way you will never do the things she did.”

 Rene Boyer said her mother was in relatively good health until suffering a massive heart attack on Friday. 

“She was independent as all get out. She drove up until that day,” Boyer, 57, said. “She was sharp as a tack. She never lost anything.” 

Services for Dixie Lee (Belt) Hinders

The family will receive friends from 5 - 7 p.m., Thursday, May 4 at the Dalton Funeral Home, corner of State Route 4 and Weaver Road, Germantown.

A graveside service will be held at 9:30 a.m. Friday, May 5 at Dayton National Cemetery. A funeral procession will form at 9 a.m. prior to the graveside service at Dalton Funeral Home, corner of State Route 4 and Weaver Road, Germantown.

Born in 1928, Dixie tap danced through her first public performance at the Dayton Art Institute when she was 6, passed a test to become one of the nation’s youngest lifeguards at age 16 and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1946. 

Not two years out of high school, the natural swimmer and trampoline artist toured Canada as part of Aqua Frolics, a water ballet production that began with Dixie diving off a four-story tower. She spent the offseasons working a clerical job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. 

In 1952, she joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, striking acrobatic poses on a 12-foot aluminum ladder swinging high above the floor of Madison Square Garden in New York City.

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Dixie Lee once told the Dayton Daily News that show business regulars in the crowd raised the stakes for the New York aerial act. 

“When you’re used to it, you don’t look down,” she said. “You shut your mind to it. I had dived from fairly high boards, but water is one thing and a wooden stage under you is something else again. I got used to it, though.” 

For her finale, Dixie whirled like a top suspended by a leather strap around her neck. 

While working in New York, Dixie was afflicted with appendicitis and had to kick Johnny Carson out of her room because he was making her laugh so hard it hurt, Boyer said. 

“She met a lot of interesting people,” said Boyer, formerly of Germantown. “She had story after story about some of the fascinating people she met … She used to tell me those were most precious years of her life. Show business she loved because there’s a bond there between everybody.” 

Her last show business gig before returning to Dayton for good took her to Sydney, Australia. She was the first trapeze artist to perform at the famed Luna Park. Dixie Lee was all of 25 years old. 

She once had an appointment at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, but walked out because the men were behaving inappropriately toward her, Boyer said. 

Home from Australia, a Dayton police officer spotted her working on the trampoline in front lawn of her West Riverview Avenue house. The officer stopped to ask her if she’d ever considered putting her athletic skills to use as a policewoman, according to Stephen Grismer of the Dayton Police History Foundation. 

“The police department saw in her the athleticism — of course she was a very attractive young lady — and they just thought she was the type of person that could help promote women in policing,” Grismer said. 

She went through the academy and joined the force, astonished to learn starting policewomen earned the same as incoming male officers. In 1956, the Dayton Daily News’ Sunday magazine Camerica featured her in a cover story: “Gal Behind the Badge.” The cover photo showed her aiming a snub-nosed revolver directly at the camera. 

“In a lot of ways for Dixie, when you look at her really colorful, athletic background, and the feature in Camerica, she really became an iconic figure for Dayton policewomen in particular in the mid 1950s,” Grismer said. “This is a whole evolving role. In a sense by virtue of that article she became a transformative figure.” 

The handful of women on the force were required to wear skirts and high heels. They were often called to assist with child neglect and abuse cases. But Dixie worked other cases, too, according to Grismer. She tracked a scamming polygamist, picked up a fugitive in Chicago, worked undercover with vice, interviewed sex crime victims, and walked the streets as a decoy to snare purse snatchers. 

» RELATED: 12 ways the Dayton Police Department has shaped law enforcement in 150 years

Like many of Dayton’s early police, Dixie’s Irish blood made for a spunky, strong, instinctive cop who spoke her thoughts directly, said her daughter Boyer who now lives in Dublin.

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“She was always bigger than life. Yet, she was really down to earth. She had a sense of justice — for children especially,” Boyer said. “She wanted to make sure everyone was taken care of.” 

With her wrist broken and wrapped after a scuffle apprehending a suspect, the policewoman took a boat ride on the Great Miami River with a Navy man she had just met through mutual friends. 

Within the span of two weeks they had nine dates — ten if you count the day Clifford “Dean” Hinders and Dixie Lee got married, Boyer said. 

As they settled into family life and had two children, Dixie Lee left the police force. Dean worked a union job insulating pipes. Dixie Lee helped set up a library at Precious Blood School when her daughter was a student there. She also kept her toes in detective work as a private investigator, employed first for an agency and then later operating her own. 

Dixie Lee told this newspaper in 1970 that most of her investigative jobs involved surveilling the activity of a spouse. She would often change clothes and wigs in service station bathrooms to avoid being recognized. 

“Missing men are slicker than missing women … they have plenty to run from. Alimony and child support leave such men nothing to live on,” Dixie Lee said at the time. “Instead of going to court, they just take off.” 

One man who never wavered was her husband Dean. 

“She never shook him,” said their daughter. “They were happily married for 24 years.”  

Dean’s sudden death in 1980 saddened the entire family but had a profound effect on his son James, just 12 at the time. 

“I had a hard time dealing with that and it caused me a lot of problems. And those problems mom had to deal with and cope with,” said James Hinders, 49, who now lives in Pocatello, Idaho. “But she never gave up on me — I mean I was a bad kid — and she never turned her back on me and she always had faith in me, almost to a fault.” 

Boyer said her mother terribly missed her father. 

“She never remarried and he was her love,” Boyer said. 

After Dean’s death, Dixie Lee continued to be a vibrant force in the family, holding theme parties and passing on her love of aquatics to an expanding family that now includes six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. 

“We’re all a bunch of water babies. We love the water,” Boyer said. “We love family getting together and cutting up and laughing and not taking ourselves too seriously.” 

When stricken by the heart attack last Friday, Dixie Lee called 9-1-1 herself, unlocked the door for the responding EMS crew, then collapsed, Boyer said. Doctors administered drugs that were able to keep Dixie alive for a time. 

“It was almost talking like normal with her,” Boyer said. “So we had a day when all the family came in and we were able to visit with her.” 

But the big heart that took Dixie from the heights of Madison Square Garden, to helping neglected kids on Dayton streets, to the small family pool where she taught her grandchildren to swim was beyond repair, doctors told the family. 

“She finished saying goodbye to everyone,” said Boyer. “And she said, ‘Let’s get this show on the road.’ She smiled and she was ready to go be with my dad.”


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