James Harrison Billingsley, born November 6, 1923, has led a remarkable life. He grew up in Erie, PA during the Depression, in desperate poverty, often living in one room with his mother and younger brother. Following his high school graduation, he was inducted into the army and served in the Pacific throughout WWII. As a forward observer, Jim was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action on Luzon, Philippine Islands, for his actions during a battle in which he moved forward in the face of heavy fire to an exposed position and assisted in adjusting artillery fire on enemy emplacements, so that his unit could advance.
Following WWII, Jim attended college on the GI bill, obtaining his Bachelor’s degree at DePauw University and his Master’s degree at Indiana State University in music education. Because Jim was a violin major, his focus had always been on orchestral music. When he obtained his job as a band director at Saegertown, PA, he knew absolutely nothing about marching bands. This forced him to develop his own unique style which included precision and fast moving dance steps — a style that would go on to shape the future trends of marching bands in this country. Each of his bands, whether from Saegertown, Oberlin, OH, or Massillon, OH was recognized for its ability to electrify audiences throughout the nation.
Jim also demanded excellence in his symphony bands and consistently received high marks in state contests with each of them. However, “Mr. B.”, as he was known to his students, while taking great pleasure in the accomplishments of his bands, always felt that his most important goal during his teaching career was to inspire his students to believe in themselves and to demonstrate to them that, with focus and determination, they could achieve their dreams.
When Jim lost his hearing due to nerve deafness, and then shortly thereafter, had a quintuple bypass at the Cleveland Clinic, many thought he would never work again. But Jim felt that he couldn’t just “sit around and do nothing.” Instead, he combined his inventiveness and his artistic talent to design and install beautiful tile and marble creations in the homes of his customers. He continued this second career through two bouts of cancer and five more bypass grafts until, at the age of 79, he was felled by a terrible Staph infection that destroyed part of his spine and left him with permanent nerve damage in his legs. Since then he has remained active and involved with his family and friends and with his various hobbies, primarily that of building award winning radio-controlled model airplanes, and has continued to study subjects of interest to him. Despite childhood poverty, the trauma he witnessed during the war, an unbelievable string of health challenges, and the loss of two careers that provided satisfaction and fulfillment, Jim has remained upbeat and focused. He is a living example of the philosophy he has espoused throughout his life: “No matter what happens, just keep on going.” Jim has been and remains an inspiration to each of us who have known him.
Jim with grandchildren, Nick and Chloe, decorating for Christmas, Dec 2008, and Halloween, Oct 2008.