Archive for Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Memories spur Billings stories

February 19, 2003


After the death of Lawrence developer Bob Billings, readers were invited to share their thoughts about the long-time community leader. Several of the stories appear here; others are available online at A memorial service for Billings is scheduled for 4 p.m. Friday at the Lied Center.

I commend the Journal-World for the articles honoring the extraordinary life of Bob Billings. While Bob's life work contributed immensely to the quality of life in Lawrence the brightest aspect of his life was perhaps the positive radiance of his presence. I can still hear the sound of his jovial voice upon entering our building bringing joy as he greeted everyone in view (whether he knew them or not) always commenting on something positive about the day.

After considering the divided perspectives over present community issues, I encourage everyone to consider that one of the greatest gifts before us is our opportunity to be like Bob. For one day we could all decide to enter every building with smiles and warm greetings paying positive attention to people in our midst. On that day we could recognize that our passion over current issues stems from the deep appreciation we all share for Lawrence, Kansas. Most importantly, we should all realize that there is no perfection in schools, development, or any other community asset that overshadows the value of living with nice people.

As we grapple with issues of our community's future let's try, in the spirit of Bob Billings, to allow what we have in common to be stronger than what comes between us. The biggest impact any of us could choose to make in Lawrence is to be kind and positive wherever we go and, in doing so, Be Like Bob.

-- Amy LeMert, Lawrence

Bob Billings has had a positive influence on Lawrence, but his influence began long before he arrived in Lawrence. Without knowing it, Bob influenced my life when we were high school classmates. I had been quite content being a B/C student, but Bob's continuous streak of A's finally got to me. As the final bell rang one day, I complained to a fellow student, "I wish I could get A's like Bob does!"

Larry gestured toward the classroom door as Bob walked out, "See what he's carrying?"

I glanced at Bob, "It looks like he's carrying all his books."

"That's right. Every day he takes home every book and spends at least two hours studying."

Now, I occasionally took a textbook home so I could complete an assignment, but to take EVERY book home EVERY night? For some reason, that concept impacted me, and I began taking at least SOME books home every day.

Before long, I was getting A's and to my amazement made the top ten student list at graduation! Bob, of course, was much higher on the list!

We had some great teachers who also encouraged us to be our best, but one of my defining moments, which I can picture as clearly today as when it happened 50 years ago, came when Larry revealed Bob's "secret."

I'm grateful I finally had the opportunity to thank Bob a few years ago for his impact.

-- Marcia Jones Treat, Baldwin, Russell High School Class of '55

There are so many others with more significant stories or memories of Bob than I could tell. But I can think of one that stands out for me. My father was one of the original investors in the Alvamar Country Club and we were invited to the grand opening back in the early '80s. The weather was horrible that day. The roads were treacherous, and it was snowing. As we approached the front door where Bob was standing, my father said, "Well Bob, it's too bad we didn't have better weather." And Bob said, "Well, it could be worse! It could be raining!" That is how I will remember Bob. No matter what the situation, he was always the first to look on the bright side.

-- Doug Brown, Lawrence

Lawrence has lost a truly great individual in Bob Billings. I have known Bob over the last 28 years. Bob was a terrific supporter of Lawrence, Kansas University and touched so many lives. Bob always had a positive spin on everything.

One day last fall, prior to a Jayhawk football game, I asked Bob how he thought we would do. He replied in the positive Bob Billings manner, "I don't know, but we'll play all four quarters."

Being involved over the last 28 years with Coldwell Banker McGrew Real Estate I have seen firsthand the impact Bob had on the development of Lawrence.

-- Steve Jones, Lawrence

I can't say enough good things about Bob Billings. This breaks my heart. I am shook up about it.
I am on his board and invested money with Alvamar when he was struggling and banks wouldn't loan him anything. I sat down to look at his financial statements and here he had no dues for coaches of various sports (at KU). When the K Club came out for an outing, he would not charge them. The Jayhawk Club had a spring event and he would not charge them....
Bob never put his name on anything. He was so generous.
If not for Bob, we'd not had Wilt Chamberlain back to Kansas (to have his jersey retired). He's the one who contacted Wilt and convinced him to come.

-- Dana Anderson, longtime KU benefactor and head of the athletic fund-raising subcommittee for KU First

He is the reason I came to KU and Alvamar. He and Jerry Waugh recruited me. He has just been wonderful to the golf programs all these years. I hope we all learn to be givers to KU and Lawrence the way Bob was, rather than takers. He was a wonderful person and we are going to miss him dearly.
-- Ross Randall, KU men's golf coach

Bob and I grew up across the street from each other. His family rented a two-room apartment from a Mr. Krug. They lived on one corner of Maple Street; we lived on the other. We were probably 50 yards from one another.
After his father, Alva, hit it in oil patch, they were able to move to bigger place.
Bob was younger than me, but I watched his high school basketball progress and then his playing at KU. I kept track of him over the years.
He did a lot of good for Lawrence. He was a good, decent guy -- that's the way I'd describe him. He was like that his whole life, he never changed. His dad was the same way.

-- Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan.

The thing I'll always remember about Bob was how comfortable he was operating somewhat anonymously. By that I mean he was never interested in being at the front of the line or being in the headlines, yet he was extremely generous. He'd rather open the door for others.
He was one of the really good guys you hate to lose.

-- Former Gov. Bill Graves, now executive director at the American Trucking Assn.

Bob, a sophomore when I arrived at KU, was one of the first student-leaders I came to know well. I admired him as a scholar, an athlete, a thoroughly reliable committee member and one of the most decent human beings I've ever known.
We worked on many projects together both during his student years and later as fellow staff members. He really cared about people and always gave others the credit for anything good that happened. He had a marvelous sense of humor and never used it at the expense of anyone else.
We remained close friends for 45 years and I will always treasure our association.

-- Emily Taylor, former dean of women at KU

If Bob, as bad as he might feel, could look out the window today, he'd remark about what a great day it was and put some kind of positive spin on it. I never saw him down in the many years I knew him and he remained that way to the end, always up, always inspiring others and never seeing any dark side. That's how I'll remember Bob, never embracing any negative, always accentuating the positive and making people around him seeing and feeling things in a brighter light. Things were always going to get better; sadly, that didn't happen in Bob's period of illness. Yet, typical Bob, he remained positive.
He was that way as a student-athlete, and while we didn't have team captains during that period, he was clearly the unofficial captain because of his leadership and inspirational presence. He remained that way every day of his life. There is no way to assess the loss to his family, friends, KU, Lawrence and the state of Kansas.
Bob was a student of history and always remembered what Abraham Lincoln's mother told him: "Be somebody." Bob's mother, Margaret, was as supportive as a mother could be and, in effect, had relayed that concept to her son. He didn't fail her. Bob, absolutely, WAS somebody!

-- Jerry Waugh, who coached Billings when he played basketball at KU, 1956-59

While the loss of Bob is deeply painful to me personally, it is nothing compared to how his wife, Beverly, and his family must feel now. I want to stress that in my lifetime and the nearly 48 years I've been close to Bob, I've never met a more generous, caring, considerate, unselfish, positive, forward-thinking human being. My sense of loss is tremendous, but far greater is the loss to his family, KU, Lawrence, the state and humanity in general.
There is no way for mere words to express how much Bob Billings meant to so many people and so many worthwhile organizations such as KU, the community and the state. He was truly a tremendous a person and as fine a leader as our society will ever know. There is no way to replace him, yet it is so important to remember his legacy and for the rest of us, and those who follow, to try to measure up to the incredible standards of outstanding citizenship and friendship he set.

-- Monte Johnson, former teammate, one-time KU athletic director, business associate and close friend

Bob was absolutely the most positive and generous person I've ever known. He was always doing something good for somebody and never met a stranger -- he would try to help anybody, anytime. He set me up with my job in Aids and Awards (in 1967) at KU. I was supposed to succeed him, and I did when he left Oct. 1, 1970. I learned and benefited so much from his expertise, intelligence, caring attitude and sense of humor.
Don't ever underestimate how great he was at using humor to handle situations. You'd get one up on him with a joke or a some kind of favor, and it would not be long before he would get back at you, only better. You simply could not top him. He was always helping somebody, anybody. He drew no lines on that and so many benefited. He was truly one of a kind.
Most of us always assumed that Bob was immortal, that he'd always be there because of his upbeat approach to life. Many of us will grieve together, but we must also realize what he added to so many lives and celebrate that.

-- Jerry Rogers, former Lawrence High teacher and coach and one-time associate with Billings in the KU office of Aids and Awards

I can't begin to tell you the fun Bob, Monte and I had in our basketball days (1956-59), and what a tremendous leader and inspiration Bob Billings was. So caring and unselfish and intelligent.
One of my first impressions of him was that he was offered a KU basketball scholarship and turned it down because he felt someone else needed it more than he did. He was a great student, as well as a fine basketball player, but mostly he was just an outstanding person.
In later years, he did more to help Wilt Chamberlain than just about anyone you could name. I know Wilt appreciated it a lot. He also aided and counseled a lot of athletes, more than you could name, many you may never have heard of. I feel honored and dignified to have been a friend and teammate of Bob Billings, and his loss is a tremendous blow to many people, institutions and the state.

-- Dr. Lynn Kindred, widely-known cardiologist at the KU Medical Center, who played basketball at KU with Billings, Monte Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain

Bob was the best, the absolute best in just about everything. Thousands of people, myself included, are better-off today because of Bob and all the wonderful things he did in so many fields. We were partners in the Alvamar project, but Bob was the developer and I just carried the water.
I think history will say that Bob was one of the major influences for good in this area and the state. There is a quality of life around here that would not exist if he had not been the active, optimistic, visionary, enthusiastic person he was. His intelligence and his capacity to absorb and act were phenomenal. I'll never get over this loss, but I will use all his accomplishments as a celebration of his magnificent life.
The university, the town, things like the corporate research park and the golf outlays here, the Golf Course Superintendents location here, you could go on all night about the massive impact he made on us all. I believe that Bob Billings was the only person in the world who could have pulled off all these things in and around a community the size of Lawrence. There is no way to measure how much he helped the community and KU.
People mention three things they admire so much about Lawrence -- the university, the downtown and the Alvamar developments and beyond. Bob was active in helping all of those prosper.
He was the older brother I never had, and he constantly inspired me and showed me how to try to be a better person. He did that with thousands and you just don't replace somebody of that magnitude. His drive, enthusiasm, vision and optimism carried over to his projects and, most important, to all the countless people whose lives he touched and enriched, like mine. There is no way to measure the benefits we gained through Bob Billings.

-- John McGrew, longtime real estate executive who partnered with Billings in the development of Alvamar and a number of other ventures

Bob Billings never said no to a deserving person or idea. The University of Kansas had no better friend over the years. He generously touched all corners and made things better for many people in the university community and in Lawrence.
He always gave to needed projects, but insisted on no fanfare. His passing is a tragic loss that will be felt for years to come.

-- Gene Budig, KU chancellor from 1981-1994

It is difficult to imagine anyone who truly cared for Lawrence and KU more than Bob Billings. He was a builder not just of structures, but of character and goodness. I'm not sure he ever had a negative thought in his life. He could dream, inspire, make things happen and make people feel good while they were striving for something positive. You seldom see anyone with all he had to offer, and all he gave.
Right now it's impossible to think of Lawrence, KU and a lot of other worthwhile things without Bob Billings. This is a terrible loss for us all.

-- Don Johnston, banker, former Maupintour executive and civic leader

He has been a great benefactor to the city of Lawrence and Douglas County. His developments have been prize winners for the community, and he did that without great personal gain. He plowed back into the community what others may have taken as profit.
He's been a good friend and he was a great benefactor for the city. He did things that people would never have imagined or known about.
He always would write a note to some kid who had excelled at something, whether it was athletic, academic or personal. I know from my own family that he was full of little praise notes.
We were lucky to have that kind of developer, otherwise we wouldn't have what we have.

-- Jerry Cooley, Lawrence attorney and friend

He grew up out in Russell. Son of Alva and Margaretta. Alva was a pioneer oil operator. He owned a restaurant in Russell called the Billings Tower.
We always had a table at the Billings Tower for our family's Sunday dinner. Bob was the friendliest kid. We called him Captain Sunshine.
He was a hero, the basketball star. He was positive and upbeat. Always had time for little kids. One of his best friends at KU was Wilt Chamberlain. Color didn't matter. He was so in love with his first wife Patty. She passed away at maybe 35 and that was real, real hard on Bob. Our daughter shared the same birthday with Bob.
After Nelson and Judy Krueger's grandson Jack was killed in a car wreck, Billings and his wife (the current one) called from New York and left a message. It was the most meaningful call. They left a voice mail and they couldn't talk they could only cry. Bob planted a tree at Alvamar in honor of Jack within a week after Jack died.

-- Nelson Krueger, lobbyist and longtime friend of Bob Billings

"Bob Billings was a real visionary. He was always ahead of his time. I wish he could of had more time to lie back and look at the fruits of his work. He was one of the most important people in Lawrence in terms of contribuiting to the quality of life we have here.
He was never the kind of guy to claim credit for anything. He was proud of what was done but he just always said what occured in Lawrence was because of Lawrence and its people. He was just that kind of person."
Kubota acknowledged that Billings sometimes was criticized for his developments. He thinks the criticism was unfair.
"There is a saying that if a man is doing good, there are 10 people to knock him down. There's always admiration for a man like Bob, but there's jealousy too. That's human nature. Bob accepted that. I don't think I ever heard him say a bad thing about anyone."

-- Brian Kubota, founder of Landplan Engineering, who designed the master plan for the original Alvamar

Weinaug came to town in 1992 from Ardmore, Okla., and had been negotiating with Billings ever since on development plans on the edges of Lawrence.
"I'd be in the middle of some controversy where I was under a lot of stress and pressure, and he'd call me and give me a word of encouragement.
In his role as developer, there's normally a -- how should I put this? -- in negotiations with developers or somebody in the development business, normally you have to be very careful, to be sure the public interest is protected.
With Bob, he'd often be pointing out to us the things we needed to do to protect the public interest, often to his own detriment.
He was a man with an incredible amount of integrity, and with an incredible love for Lawrence, and the physical evidence of that will be permanently with us through the things he accomplished -- all the way from the quality development that was done by him and his companies, to the way he touched people's lives in tangible ways.
Bob was different. He was always looking down the road, and he was always doing it in a way where he looked after not only his interests, but the public's interests. I'll miss him."

-- Craig Weinaug, Douglas County administrator

Bob Billings was one of the most decent human beings I've ever encountered. Everybody had affection for him, and he lived his life in a way that people wanted to be around him. This is a tremendous loss. You feel like there's a bright light that's gone out of the world.
There was no more loyal Jayhawk than Bob Billings. When I came to Kansas, he had written me a note and pledged to help me in any way he could.
I remember talking to him, and had really strong opinions about how you have to have support for students to attend the university. He had a real place in his heart for students who needed scholarships to help come to KU.

-- KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway

As a KU endowment trustee and donor, I always thought of him as a renaissance man. He helped with so many things across the campus, including the Spencer Museum of Art, the Dole Institute of Politics, the Lied Center, Chancellor's Club and student leadership programs.
Bob, I think, always looked at all facets of the university and thought how, it would meet its full potential at the university, about how every component, every school and every department contributed so much to the university's reputation.

-- Dale Seuferling, president of the KU Endowment Association

When I came to Lawrence 15 months ago, no one did more to make me feel welcome or display greater enthusiasm for the institute than Bob Billings.
The world is full of givers and takers. They're givers. The world of politics -- and I assume, campus politics, too -- is full of people who love to see themselves in print and who wield the personal pronoun like a sword. Bob was the rarity. He loved to do good things, and he didn't care to get credit for it.

-- Richard Norton Smith, director of the Dole Institute of Politics

Worked with Billings through the department for 25 years.
"I think Bob was always a gentleman. I was always impressed by the way he dealt with situations around him. He always had such a calm demeanor.
I think maybe his greatest contributions to the community was picking up the ball when the city didn't have the staff to do long-range planning.
There are people who, like Nichols who did the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, do projects of that scale. I would put them on the same level of what they've done for their communities."

-- Linda Finger, director of Lawrence Douglas County Planning Department

One of my first thoughts upon hearing about Bob's death was about the fall of 1958 in a room when he was trying to get me to pledge ATO (social fraternity). He was energetic and positive then, always a great salesman. I can't imagine anyone who has done more for athletics, KU, the town, the state and the area. His energy, spirit, optimism and unselfish use of his resources were astounding. I remember repeatedly writing him note after note thanking him for all the great things he did for KU athletics and KU. So many of them were done without any public acknowledgement and absolutely no desire for credit. He was one of a kind.
Bob did so much to make the quality of life for the people in our community better and we owe him great gratitude for his achievements that made things better for so many of us. Again, ever so many things he did, beyond the high-profile items, were done quietly. His positive impact and influence on thousands of people are truly inestimable.

-- Bob Frederick, former KU athletic director

I have never met an individual more caring, thoughtful and kind as Bob Billings. I only had the priveledge of knowing Bob for three years, but I am thankful that I had the opportunity to meet and know such a wonderful human being. I will never forget his warm and caring smile. My heart goes out to Bev. We love her dearly and she is in our thoughts and prayers.

-- Melissa Ketzner

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