This column is dedicated to a true newspaper man, who inspired me to be the writer I am today. Henry Damon “Hank” Billings, died on June 23, just six days after celebrating his 91st birthday. He died peacefully in his sleep while in hospice care in Springfield, Missouri.
Mr. Billings wrote for the Springfield News-Leader for 74 years. His final column ran in the paper on June 21. It was about dating with his wife Anne, who died in March 2015 after 62 years of marriage. He began his career as a reporter, covering several different news beats over the years, but for the past 30-plus years Mr. Billings was a columnist, whose musings appeared in the paper several times each week.
I first became acquainted with Mr. Billings when his son, John, dated and married my cousin Maria, in 1981. I was a teen then, and out of respect I called him Mr. Billings. Although, he preferred to be called Hank, I never outgrew calling him Mr. Billings. In fact, my other cousins who weren’t directed related to him, have always done the same.
As a member of the extended family, we spent many holidays, weddings and funerals together, and I would always seek out Mr. Billings and engage him in conversation. We had a lot in common to talk about. He had a keen dry wit, and was a sports fan – particularly interested in the St. Louis Cardinals and PGA. Although he had a congenital hip ailment that caused him to walk with a severe limp, he was an avid golfer.
When I had my talk shows on radio and television, Mr. Billings would often ask me what were the topics of the day we were discussing on my show. He wanted to know the opinion of the callers. He would often start a conversation and then was more interested in hearing my opinion, than giving his own. That’s what made him a great reporter.
I rarely saw Mr. Billings get mad about anything, certain things would perturb him, but he never got truly mad. He was solid in his faith in God and although his newspaper work was important to him, his family always took priority.
One thing that always impressed me about Mr. and Mrs. Billings was the fact their two children, John and Annie, were adopted. I’ve always held adopted parents in high esteem, and once did a two-hour special on the subject on my radio show. I have several members of my family who have adopted children (or are adopted), and it just means a lot to me that they would have that kind of love to share with a child and treat them as their own.
Mr. Billings wrote several different columns over the years, but most were based on his observations of life. His columns would often feature his own family, especially the funny things his grandchildren said from time to time. He also was a pilot and loved writing about flying and visiting quaint towns around the Ozarks, and the people he met along the way. He officially retired from the News-Leader in 2001, but continued to write a weekly column, “Hank’s History,” on a freelance basis.
It was the way Mr. Billings wrote his columns, with his unique humor and point of view on life and family, that inspired me to want to begin writing this column in 2001. It’s also the reason I came up with the title for this column; “My View from Here.” I never wanted this column to be strictly about sports, although that’s what I was hired to do, but thankfully the publisher of this newspaper has given me a lot of latitude to write on several different topics over the years, and thus I have an opportunity to share my observations about different subjects from time to time. This especially becomes more evident when I travel – which along with sports is another one of my passions. More on that in the coming weeks.
So, Mr. Billings won’t be reading this column this week, but I know in his modest way he would be flattered that I took the time to write about him. He truly has inspired my work in the media over the years, and I hope and pray that I can somehow do the same for someone else.