Photo by Elizabeth Robinson, managing editor
Amid the hums and rumbles of washers, dryers and music playing over the radio, Dixie Byers sits comfortably smiling, chatting and sipping coffee.
Byers, 61, owns Campus Cleaners, a dry-cleaning business at the intersection of University Avenue and 34th Street near Drake University’s campus.
When customers enter the shop, Byers greets them by name, often with a hug. To her, Campus Cleaners is more than a small business. It is a small community that has kept her alive.
In the late 1990s, Byers suffered a ruptured appendix. The almost life-threatening condition caused her to be homebound from her job as vice president of operations at Amatco Manufacturing for nearly seven weeks. People close to her worried about depression and recommended she see a counselor. At the suggestion of a counselor, Byers came across Campus Cleaners.
“One of the things the doctor told me to do was a sort of assignment,” Byers said. “He said ‘You need to get into life.’” Byers was referred to Nancy Stefani, a long time scorekeeper for Drake athletics and the owner of a nearby campus dry-cleaner. After becoming acquainted and forming a close relationship with Stefani and her husband, Byers was approached with a proposition.
“‘We want you to buy Campus Cleaners,’ they said to me, and I said I couldn’t because I didn’t have enough money but they said, ‘It’s OK, we’ll set you up.’ So that’s how I acquired Campus Cleaners,” Byers said.
With no experience and while she was still recovering, Byers learned what it took to run a campus dry-cleaner. This would not be the last time Byers’ health played a part in her role as owner of the shop, though.
Throughout her time working near Drake’s campus, Byers has become especially involved with the Drake athletics department. As a member of the Board of Athletics, she can always be spotted rooting on the basketball team.
“She just kind of bleeds Drake athletics,” said Seth VanDeest, a redshirt junior member of Drake men’s basketball. “I think that she just loves every minute of it.” VanDeest was introduced to Byers near the beginning of his athletic career at Drake due to her presence at the basketball offices from time to time. She is a key supporter and booster for the basketball team in particular, regularly donating time, money and cheering — lots of cheering.
In 2002, the tables turned on Byers. She was suddenly in need of cheering. Byers was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2002, beginning a battle that she would fight three separate times over the course of 11 years. She is currently in remission and is only one of the half-a-percent of women to survive ovarian cancer. Byers largely attributes this to the support of the Drake and Campus Cleaners communities.
“Drake students and young people have a lot of energy because they have their whole future ahead of them,” she said. “They were very supportive. They gave me the energy and the will to want to live and to fight.”
VanDeest, along with teammate Reece Uhlenhopp, heard of Byers’ condition and wanted to help her in some way. After forming a relationship with her, having conversations in passing and witnessing her endless support for their team, they decided the best way to give back was to support her like she had them.
“I just really believe they’ve been some good cheerleaders and really, they really care,” Byers said. “Those two boys, they’re just like my kids, and every time I see them in the Knapp Center they come over and talk to me and put their arms around me and give me a hug.”
Even through Byers’ long bout of illness, she continued to work at the cleaners and maintained a positive attitude. Starting in 2010, her brother Todd provided support for Byers as he stepped in to oversee Campus Cleaners while the business relocated a little further down University Avenue.
While the move was a positive change for the cleaners, resulting in a 34 percent increase in sales, it occurred during a difficult time. Byers was going through surgery for her last cancer diagnosis. Despite the whirlwind taking place that year and dealing with the relocation, her attitude was stronger than ever.
“I never went into a doctor’s treatment where I didn’t smile and laugh when I went in, and I didn’t come out that way,” she said. “Physically, it could be really hard if you wanted to let it and believe that it was, but I chose to believe the other way. I would get tired easily, but I just refused to let cancer manage me…I’m managing it.”
This month, Byers will have been cancer-free for two years. Her aggressive, go-getter attitude and her spirit are evident upon entering Campus Cleaners to find her sitting in her usual spot.
“When you think you’re going through a tough time, you think about people like her and what she’s going through and the way that she deals with it just with a great attitude,” VanDeest said. “Always has her head up, never in a bad mood, and that’s something that you try to emulate a little bit.” Byers’ involvement on campus, in the lives of students and with the athletic department has continued to have an impact on her life and on those around her. “I think it’s not the 100 percent that makes you successful in life, but the 110 percent that will get you there,” she said. “It’s not about winning the game, it’s about how you do it to get there and get the support behind you, and that’s true in life in general.”