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The mayor who rose from poverty to transform a Georgia town

Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, the mayor of Riverdale, Ga., tells NBC News' Maria Shriver how she persevered through homelessness and difficult times to become the successful mayor of an American city. 

By Jay Kernis, Producer, NBC News

RIVERDALE, Ga. --  In 1973, Evelyn Wynn-Dixon was standing at the Pryor Street Bridge overlooking Atlanta’s I-75, preparing to jump. She had four babies, no husband, no job and no self-esteem. At the time, she never would have believed what her life would become decades later. 

If she killed herself, she thought, her children “would be rich” from her insurance policy. “I saw a tractor-trailer comin’. I said, ‘I am not gonna be able to do that.’ So I went home and I had a .22. It had no bullets.”

She also tried over-dosing on aspirin and cutting her wrist, without success. After those suicide attempts, she says she heard her late mother’s voice telling her, “School is the answer.”

That’s when Wynn-Dixon says she decided to turn her life around.

NBC News

She had been to college, but became pregnant early on and dropped out. So years later, wanting a new life for her children, she earned a nursing certificate, then a bachelor of science, a masters in social work and gerontology, and eventually, a Ph.D. in public health.  

Many times, she walked miles from her home to her classes, and worked a series of jobs -- cleaning and cooking among them -- to pay tuition and support her children.

In 2007, Wynn-Dixon ran for the office of mayor of Riverdale, Ga., a city of around 16,000 people at the edge of Atlanta. She was 58 years old at the time and had no political experience. After a campaign that cost $2,318.57, she was elected. Wynn-Dixon’s first term lasted until 2008, and during her second term, which runs until 2016, she ran unopposed.

NBC News' Special Anchor Maria Shriver interviewed the mayor as part of a series of stories covering “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.” The report, co-authored by Shriver and The Center for American Progress, documents the estimated 42 million women across the country—and 28 million dependent children—who live at the edge of poverty and economic disaster.

Wynn-Dixon told NBC News that Riverdale needs more white-collar jobs, and she’d like to re-brand the town’s image as a great place to live.

So far, as mayor Wynn-Dixon has built a new city hall complex — including a new town hall, courtroom, gym and amphitheater--and cleaned up the town. She ended her first term with a balanced budget, and even a small surplus.

Chief of Police Samuel Patterson said that the mayor has encouraged citizens from all walks of life, from children to seniors, to get involved in the life of the town.

"Dr. Wynn-Dixon has been an absolute ambassador for the city,” Patterson said. “She has opened doors that otherwise would not have been opened, had it not been for her vivacious personality. She has done more for the city in her first term than most of the mayors we’ve had who were her predecessors."

And according to mayor pro tem An’cel Davis, her leadership style “brought the city together."

"She took over when the city was going through turbulent times—crime, changes in demographics, and economic challenges," Davis said. "She has sort of a mother personality about her — everybody is 'baby.' She has that mother image.”

The mayor’s children are grown now. Two of her sons attended the University of Georgia where they had considerable success as athletes. One later went to Harvard for his MBA. Her daughter, an attorney, is getting her Ph.D. Another son served a nine-year prison sentence, but earned his veterinarian degree while incarcerated.

Wynn-Dixon says she’ll run one more time, “If the people will have me.”  

“My zip code didn’t make me. My size didn’t make me," said Wynn-Dixon, who describes herself as “voluptuously full-figured." "It was the fact that I dared to get up. I kept saying, ‘This is not going to defeat me. I’m going to prove to people that I can make it.’”

And she did.