It’s said a memory can last a lifetime.
For Paul Dixon, ’86 BSB, and his cousin Lehman Riley, their memory of their grandparents never has strayed too far from their minds.
When their grandparents come up in conversation, Dixon says, Riley always shares his memories of them as if he never wants to let them go. He talks about how Riley and his family used to visit their grandparents — affectionately called Papa Lemon and Mama Sarah — in Mississippi where they would play checkers and sip Dr. Pepper.
“Papa Lemon was the most amazing person in the world because he treated him [Riley] like he was just the greatest grandchild that he had ever known,” Dixon says of Riley and his grandfather’s bond. “It was as if Papa Lemon was Lehman’s idol.”
That close relationship between grandchild and grandfather inspired Dixon and Riley to team up and start a book business named after and inspired by their grandfather, called Papa Lemon Books.
Now seven books in, the children’s series of The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers follows multiethnic schoolchildren as they travel through time to explore diverse history. To help the children, known as the Little Wanderers, Papa Lemon takes them back in time with the help of a magical train.
In the series, the Little Wanderers meet historical figures such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and famous athlete Babe Didrikson, as well as explore historical events such as the California Gold Rush, the first successful open heart surgery, and slavery.
The book, Dixon says, teaches students about racial diversity, as well as topics not typically found in storybooks aimed at grade-schoolers, such as struggles with depression.
“I definitely see Papa Lemon as a force of good because when you can look back in history and cherish those moments and talk about them now, I just think that’s something that is good for youth and adults,” he says.
Starting up the business
To get Papa Lemon Books to this point, Dixon and Riley have persevered and taken risks because they believe in what they’re doing.
The business has developed in various stages over the past 14 years since Riley, who authors all of the books, completed the first one in 2004. Over the next four years, Riley visited many schools to talk to students about the books and writing. But the book series didn’t take off like they hoped it would, and both men took full-time jobs.
The business went dormant for seven or eight years before the cousins decided they needed to go for it.
“A couple of years ago we both made a decision,” Dixon says. “We felt that the time was right to go for it and that’s what we’re doing now.”
Building a career
But risks are something Dixon has taken on throughout his entire career.
Dixon came to the University after turning down a football scholarship to North Dakota State University. Originally an engineering major, Dixon changed course after taking a few engineering and math classes and enrolled in the Carlson School.
“I just knew that wasn’t a fit for me so I switched over to business,” Dixon says.
After graduating, Dixon started a career at Target where he worked as a merchandise analyst. There, he distributed and ordered products for the company. He eventually landed a job at the Walt Disney Co., where he worked in toy licensing-marketing.
He resigned from Disney last year to work full-time on Papa Lemon Books. That experience in the business industry, particularly around toys and licensing, helped Dixon make the jump to working on his new business.
“I think one of the most important things is to really follow your gut and your passion and your instincts in life,” Dixon says. “Because sometimes what happens is that we end up doing things that we really don’t want to do. Our parents or boyfriend/girlfriend or someone convinces you to go for it. That would be my advice — to really follow what is within you.”
Now, Dixon and Riley are focused full-time on the project.
The memory of their grandparents is what keeps Dixon and Riley going. When their first book was complete, their grandmother, Mama Sarah, who also stars in the books, was able to see it a month before she passed away. She was 101.
“That’s kind of an emotional nice touch to the overall book,” he says.