Donald Ray Billings, 88, of Lewisville, peacefully passed away surrounded by his family on Saturday, April 15, 2023. He is survived by his devoted wife of 63 years, Rhoda Bryan Billings. Don was a highly accomplished and principled attorney, real estate developer and businessman. He also was an adoring husband and loving father and grandfather.
Don was born on Aug. 18, 1934, and raised in Wilkesboro, the third of four sons of Millard Russell and Mary Snow Billings. He was an outstanding student at Wilkesboro High School, class of 1952. He graduated from Duke University in 1956, with a degree in business. He was the drum major of the Blue Devils marching band and a member of the Air Force ROTC. He loved to tell the story of how he led the Duke Marching Band at the 1955 Orange Bowl, where his Blue Devils triumphed over Nebraska. Don’s love of music stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Following graduation from college, he immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served as a lieutenant and communications officer aboard a ship in the Pacific fleet during peacetime. He loved to tell stories about his years in the Navy, including taking watch on deck overnight and literally sleeping while standing. He completed his career in the Navy as an intelligence officer in Washington, D.C., where he reconnected with and began dating Rhoda Bryan, of Wilkesboro, whom he had known since high school. Thus began a love story that would last for more than six decades.
On Oct. 2, 1959, Don and Rhoda were married in Washington, D.C. They moved to Durham, where Don was honorably discharged from the Navy, began his first day of law school at Duke University Law School and celebrated the birth of his first child, all on the same day. Upon graduation in 1963, and now with two children, they moved to Winston-Salem. Don opened his law practice and Rhoda began law school at Wake Forest University. After Rhoda’s graduation in 1966, they formed their own general law practice, Billings and Billings. Shortly thereafter, with Don’s encouragement, Rhoda was elected as the first woman to the newly created district court bench in Forsyth County. She went on to teach at Wake Forest Law School four years later, while Don developed a highly regarded Chapter 11 bankruptcy practice (business reorganization) including being appointed as a bankruptcy court trustee. During this time, they also bought land outside of town and built their dream home in Lewisville, where they lived happily for the next 49 years.
Don was active in the Republican Party of Forsyth County. He was instrumental in the successful gubernatorial campaigns of James Holshouser in 1972, and James Martin in 1984 and 1988. Don was also a leading member of the North Carolina Bar Association. He was the founding member of the Bankruptcy Law Section. Most importantly, Don was the staunch supporter and advocate of Rhoda in her own career pursuits. With his support, she was appointed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where she served for several years as the first married woman and mother on the state’s highest court before returning to Wake Forest Law School to teach for the next 30 years. It was Don’s progressive encouragement and devotion that enabled Rhoda to enjoy unprecedented success as a woman in the otherwise male-dominated world of the law.
In 1985, Don was appointed trustee of a bankrupt development in Seven Lakes West (Moore County). He decided to leave the private practice of law to personally take over the development of what is now Beacon Ridge Golf and Country Club. As his first order of business, Don oversaw the completion of an earthen dam that created Auman Lake. At 800 acres and 13 miles of shoreline, it is the largest spring-fed and clearest lake in North Carolina and is the focal point of the development. Don also had the great business foresight to hire renowned golf architect Gene Hamm to design the course for Beacon Ridge. Its reputation as one the prettiest golf courses in the Sandhills region continues to this day. Don also designed and built a Mount Vernon-style clubhouse and restaurant for the club members. It was Don’s business acumen, vision, energy, tireless work and unparalleled sense of style that saved the community and restored real estate value to hundreds of landowners.
In addition to being lawyers, Don and Rhoda were lifelong avid tennis players. They regularly won the mixed doubles championships at the Bar Association annual meetings. They taught the love of the game to their children and enjoyed years of spirited family doubles matches. Don and Rhoda also loved dancing and spent many happy evenings waltzing and foxtrotting in each other’s arms.
Don was a devoted son, son-in-law, brother and brother-in-law. Together with Rhoda, he quietly provided financial and emotional support to many grateful family members enduring hardships over the years. He never sought repayment, recognition or thanks for his generosity. When his younger brother suffered a stroke and became bedridden, Don and Rhoda selflessly visited him every day for years, providing support, love and encouragement to his brother and his family.
Upon his retirement, Don returned to tend full-time to his beloved home on the 33 wooded acres in Lewisville. He and Rhoda enjoyed their time together playing tennis, taking care of Rhoda’s vegetable garden, tending the grounds and hosting many extended family gatherings. Their 4th of July pool party cook-out became a beloved family tradition. Don was also “Papa” to four adoring grandchildren and saved some of his fondest smiles and gentlest (and silliest) moments for them. Don and Rhoda also loved to sit out on the back deck overlooking the woods and enjoy a cocktail and dinner together, always happy just to be the two of them, always each other’s best friend. Don also accompanied Rhoda to her many professional meetings around the country. It was during these travels and his retirement that Don wrote a science fiction novel, simply for the pure joy of the creative process.
As a family member recently wrote upon hearing of the passing of this extraordinary man, “there will never be another Don Billings on the planet, but thankfully, he created an amazing legacy that will never be forgotten and will live on. To say the least, his was a life well lived, both for himself and his family.” Don will be terribly missed.
In addition to his wife, Rhoda, Don is survived by their children, Renee Crawford (Robert), of Raleigh, and Douglas Billings (Jenny), of Sanibel Island, Fla. Don was the proud grandfather to four grandchildren, Kelly Billings, of San Francisco, Calif., Anna Billings, of Aiken, S.C., Abby Crawford Williams (Mario), of Raleigh, and Robbie Crawford, of Raleigh. Also surviving are his sister-in-law, Suzie Bryan Wiles (David), of Wilkesboro; and brother-in-law, John Q. Bryan (Janet), of Wilmington; and sister-in-law, Glenna Billings, of Winston-Salem. He is also survived by many beloved nieces and nephews, their spouses and their many children.
Don was predeceased in death by his father, Millard Russell Billings; his mother, Mary Snow Billings; and his brothers, RJ Billings, Leo Billings and Larry Billings.
The family received friends on Wednesday, April 19, at Miller Funeral Service. Private burial service followed at the Bryan family “Old Home Place” in Trap Hill.
In lieu of flowers, tax-deductible donations in memory of Donald Billings may be made to Transitions LifeCare of Wake County, Philanthropy Dept., 250 Hospice Circle, Raleigh, NC 27607 (www.transitionslifecare.org/donate).
Miller Funeral Service of North Wilkesboro is assisting the family.
Online condolences may be offered at www.millerfuneralservice.com.