‘Cowboy’ is gone: Horace Billings forged a Hall of Fame career as Post sports editor, writer
SALISBURY — Late in his sportswriting career, everything about Horace Billings connected to the number “50.”
Fifty years of covering Catawba College athletics.
Fifty years of writing dispatches from the Masters.
Fifty years as a Heisman Trophy elector.
Fifty years connected to Rowan County sports.
Day in and day out, Billings fashioned a Hall of Fame career, forged with loyalty, dependability and instincts for what readers wanted.
Billings, sports editor of the Salisbury Post from 1948-88, died Wednesday night in Charlotte after an extended illness. He was 85.
Billings had especially declined in the past week after entering a hospital for pneumonia and a possible heart attack.
Earlier this week, he was moved to Levine & Dickson Hospice Care. According to reports from friends, he was buried Thursday in a private ceremony in Salisbury.
No other news of a memorial service has been disclosed.
“Horace Billings was the Salisbury Post’s best sports editor ever,” says Ed Dupree, who followed him as sports editor in 1988. “He is the reason the Post has been known for its local sports coverage for more than half a century.
“Those who have followed him, including myself, were just continuing a tradition that he started.”
Dupree and Billings worked together 35 years.
“He was one of a kind and a good friend,” Dupree says.
Catawba College held a Horace Billings Day in 1997 to celebrate his 50 years of following the school’s football teams. As the Indians charged onto the field that day, they made a bull rush toward the always unflappable Billings.
He proudly wore a “50” Catawba jersey for the game and served as Catawba’s honorary captain.
There are more permanent tributes to Billings. Rowan County’s annual amateur golf championship is named for him. He also was the first inductee into the Rowan County Sports Hall of Fame based on his special achievements in sports.
The award then became known as the Horace Billings Special Achievement Award — something Dupree won in 2006.
When Catawba College opened its new football stadium in 2003, the school dedicated the fourth floor of its pressbox as the “Billings Press Area.”
Billings hired today’s Catawba College athletic director, Dennis Davidson, as a part-time sportswriter when he was 16.
“He really was a sweetheart of a man and taught me a lot early on in my career,” Davidson says. “... I owe a lot to Horace Billings.”
If you took a time machine and went back to the original Labor Day tournament at the Country Club of Salisbury, Billings was there. The same time machine would show Billings planning for gatherings that would grow into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in Salisbury.
Before most sportswriters, Billings recognized how big of a sport NASCAR would become on the national scene. In a 2001 story in the Post, Billings said Bill France, the father of NASCAR, used to hand-deliver to the Post sports department the latest news on his dirt-track racing circuit.
Billings said he told France early on that nobody was “going to take up with that roughhouse sport.” But Billings became a quick convert, and for more than 40 years, he served on the Racing Panel of Experts.
A young Billings also witnessed and had his staff cover the rise of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.
His department won N.C. Community Service Awards in 1958 and 1965 for its sports coverage. The sports pages at the Post also earned national awards for its stories and photos on minor league and American Legion baseball.
Again, it was Billings’ sports pages in the Post that traced the ascendancy of American Legion baseball in Rowan County from Joe Ferebee’s coaching days in the mid 1950s.
Billings once had the distinction — and no one has probably ever dethroned him — of being the youngest sports editor of a daily newspaper in North Carolina. Post Publisher J.F. Hurley Jr. hired him Aug. 21, 1948, at the age of 19.
Rufus Horace Billings grew up in Winston-Salem as one of seven children of a Methodist minister. He began his sportswriting career during World War II at the age of 14. Short on men, sports staffs pressed capable teenagers into game coverage, and Billings worked under the tutelage of Winston-Salem Journal Sports Editor Frank Spencer.
As part of his duties, Billings would gather player quotes for Mary Garber, one of the state’s first women sportswriters, who wasn’t allowed into the male locker rooms.
Billings skipped some grades and graduated high school at 15. He entered High Point College, where he headed the publicity department, the school newspaper and Student Government Association.
Outside of school, he also worked for the High Point Enterprise.
Hurley, the Post publisher, approached Billings about the sports editor’s job here while Billings was working one day as the official scorer for a minor league baseball game.
A stint in the U.S. Army Reserves from August 1950 to January 1952 was the only major interruption in Billings’ long career at the Post. He spent most of that time at Fort Lewis in Washington State, where he edited the camp newspaper, The Ranger.
In 1961, showing his prognostication prowess, Billings won Look magazine’s national contest for college football forecasts. The prize was an all-expense-paid trip to New York, where Billings met with bowl queens, prominent college coaches and the Look All-America Team.
Steve Phillips, associate director of communications for the Atlantic Coast Conference, was hired by Billings in 1982. Phillips went to great pains to prepare for his job interview and made sure to go over a complete checklist of things on his three-hour drive to Salisbury.
“I get to the Post, take the elevator up, and the first person I encounter is Horace,” Phillips remembers. “He is wearing a sports shirt and chomping on a piece of pizza they had ordered for the newsroom.
“He sticks out his hand and says, ‘Steve? Horace Billings — glad to have you join us, you know it?’ ”
That was the interview. Billings spent the next hour outlining everything Phillips would be doing, then took him for a ride downtown.
Brian Morrison, assistant commissioner for the ACC, also worked for the Post while a student at Catawba College.
The first high school football game Morrison covered was a 63-0 contest between North Rowan and North Stanly. Morrison’s lead was, “In possibly the worst high school football game ever played ...”
Morrison says he then rambled on with a bunch of play-by-play.
“I rushed out the next afternoon to get a copy of the paper and read my story,” Morrison recalls. “I picked it up, and it said ‘By Brian Morrison,’ and then I didn’t recognize another word.
“He’d rewritten the lead, he’d rewritten everything, but he kept my byline. I said, ‘Wow, who wrote this? It sounds really good.’ ”
After Billings stepped down as sports editor in 1988, he remained an invaluable writer for the Post as he still covered NASCAR, golf and Catawba and Pfeiffer college athletics.
Friends often called Billings by his nickname of “Cowboy,” and he likewise seemed to have a nickname for everyone he knew.
The “Cowboy” monicker first attached to Billings when he came back from the 1949 Cotton Bowl with an oversized Texas cowboy hat. It solidified several years later when he accompanied a friend to a cattle auction in Rimertown.
Just to get the bidding started on a calf, Billings called out $5, only to realize moments later it was enough to secure the animal. He drove back from the auction with the calf in a box in the back seat.
The calf left him a calling card by the time they reached Salisbury. He gave the animal away.
Billings became a good golfer and was known for how fast he could play a round, just by keeping his ball in the fairway. He often could be found at Corbin Hills, and legend had it he once played nine holes in 35 minutes.
“Horace played in a lot of Carolina Golf Writers (later Carolina Golf Reporters) events over the years and was an original member of the North Carolina Magazine Golf Panel,” Dupree says. “He won so many prizes he had to start giving away golf bags to friends.”
Phillips says Billings was a loyal boss who stood up for his reporters.
“He was one of the fastest writers I have ever seen,” Phillips adds. “To this day when work is piling up and I have a ton of written pieces to do, I still wish my fingers could move across a keyboard the way his did — and it didn’t matter if he was on his PC or an Underwood.”
Phillips says Billings had trademark phrases, usually tagging “you know it?” to the end of every sentence. Whenever Phillips walked into the office in the morning, Billings would greet him with “Steve, what’s cooking?”
Davidson says it seemed no matter what part of the day you walked into the newsroom, Billings was there. “He was such as mainstay,” Davidson says.
Billings met his wife, Joyce, while she was a student at Catawba College. She and Horace had one child, Bill, who would become a prize-winning photographer for the Charlotte Observer.
Joyce died Oct. 1, 2002. For the last seven-plus years of her life, Billings visited Joyce several times daily at the Brian Center, even though a second stroke had left her unresponsive.
As part of her recovery from the first stroke, Billings took Joyce with him on some of his trips for the newspaper, including Kansas City, with Catawba’s basketball team; Tulsa, with Pfeiffer’s basketball squad; Augusta, for the Masters; and Daytona, for the big NASCAR race.
In the 2001 Post profile, Billings called his career “a good journey.”
“Nobody else in the world could have had a better place to work, or better people to be writing about,” he said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.