Life in an RV park

Gabe Semenza

Nov. 20, 2010 at 5:20 a.m.

Pat Dawson, owner of Dad's RV Park, makes phone calls for her mission, Compassionate People Aiding Texans, from her home at the RV park. Dawson jokes that between the RV park and the mission, she spends most of her life on the phone.

Pat Dawson, owner of Dad's RV Park, makes phone calls for her mission, Compassionate People Aiding Texans, from her home at the RV park. Dawson jokes that between the RV park and the mission, she spends most of her life on the phone.

Pat Dawson adjusted her eyeglasses and climbed into the golf cart.

She steered onto the RV park's narrow, paved road and smiled at a neighbor. Simultaneously, she tilted her head outside the cart to absorb this brisk and bright October morning.

Many 75-year-olds move to RV parks to live lifelong dreams - to retire to places reminiscent of family vacations.

Dawson and her late husband, however, bought Dad's RV Park 12 years ago. Here, they could care for one another and their finances.

But after her husband died a year ago, Dawson received several offers from those interested in buying the park.

The widow so far refuses. She clings to the property as if it's a buoy in a storm, and to the headstrong ways that drive her longtime success in business.


Dawson drove slowly through her Hopkins Street park, taking time at almost each of the 82 rentable sites to discuss the occupant.

"That young man there is divorced," she said, pointing to a trailer. "Real emotional about the divorce, so I've adopted him."

The tenant over there, she added, is a local construction worker who devotes three days a week to charity.

"The woman in there has lived here for 12 years, and I've never seen or talked to her," Dawson continued. "She quietly slides her rent check in the door slot each month."

At the east end of the park, one-day visitors mingle outside RVs; at the other end, retirees, permanent residents and full-time RVers busy themselves inside.

"They're like turtles," Dawson said, cracking the beginning of a smile. "They take their house with them."

Dawson's sense of humor remains sharp even though she sleeps only six hours at most each day. The demands of more than 100 tenants keep her up until at least midnight, and they beckon her again by 6 a.m.

The distance between her personal life and work is the thickness of a standard door, which separates the main office and her adjoined home.

"Personal time is limited," she said. "The thing I hear most is 'I want' and 'I need.' Living here is like having extended family that lives in small houses next door to you, and they come over whenever they want."

Dawson rotated her wedding ring, which still fits snugly on her left index finger. She then stopped in front of Denny and Gale Day's RV.

Dawson looked at the North Texas couple's RV, and then at the dozens of others.

"I don't do anything for fun now that I don't have a husband," she said. "It's not fun to go do things when you're single. If I were to sell this park right now, I'd be signing my own death warrant."


Dawson has for decades operated her own business. She owned a restaurant and carpet installation company in Michigan, and succeeded at selling real estate in Detroit.

"I was looking out for people's interests then - what they needed in a house - and it's the same thing here," she said. "I enjoy it here. I like solving problems and meeting new people."

She met Robert Dawson in Michigan almost 30 years ago. He was a simple, easy-going factory worker who raised cattle on a farm in the country. She was a brash city girl who wore nylons and high heels.

"We were a couple that just meshed," Dawson said. "What he was good at, I wasn't good at. What I was good at, he wasn't. It was a shock losing him. If I didn't have God, I wouldn't have made it. I have to thank God for the 28 years we had. I can't pout because I didn't get 50 like everyone else."

Dawson stepped into her small, wood-paneled office. The room has worn carpet, a grandfather clock and two sturdy desks.

After the Dawsons bought the eight-acre park in 1998 - and paid it off six years later - the couple expanded. They purchased another 12 acres, built a 7,000-square-foot clubhouse and developed 15 new sites.

"Since I got hitched, I go where I'm told," Bob Young, a 76-year-old married retiree from Austin, joked as he put together a puzzle in the park's clubhouse. "I love this park. If you don't like your neighbor or the weather, you can move."

To entertain guests, Dawson organizes on-site dances, socials and even computer classes. For the first time, the park had no vacancies this summer.

"The success here is all because of word of mouth, and that's because of Pat," said Wanda Wilson, a full-time RVer. "She's a very friendly lady, a strong Christian lady."


Dawson sat in her home and in front of a rolltop desk, a hand-me down from her late husband's family. She regularly discusses Robert Dawson. She seems to draw on his memory - his life lessons - as motivation for tomorrow.

"I could sell this park tomorrow for a lot of money, but he never cared about money," she said. "To spend it foolishly wasn't his way."

Maybe it's no surprise then that Dawson continues the nonprofit the couple started almost a decade ago.

Compassionate People Aiding Texans collects and distributes donated furniture, household items and food to those in need. In eight years, the nonprofit helped more than 900 families.

Dawson works daily to help others, and is focused in recent time on specifically helping women.

"You wouldn't believe how many mothers can't afford diapers," she said, pointing to a stack of Huggies and training toilets. "I'd also like to teach women self-confidence. Women have a lot to offer the world, and not every one of them realizes they can."

Dawson realizes that although she still enjoys owning and operating an RV park, the time will come when she can't. Until then, she draws on her own life experience to propel her beyond the lonely days.

"When I don't have the mental and physical capacity, then I'll sell it," Dawson said. "Success is just having enough failures and picking yourself up each time. If you're stubborn enough, you'll eventually get it right."



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