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Award-Winning Times Reporter Bill Billiter Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Billiter, an award-winning reporter and editor for the Times Orange County edition, died Saturday while returning home from running in the annual UC Irvine Zot Trot five-kilometer race. He was 62.

Billiter was born and raised in the flatlands of western Kentucky but came to personify the prototypic California male, said his daughter, Mary Billiter Thomas. Tanned, a competitive runner and something of a sun worshiper, he took to his adoptive home with the fervor of a native.

“He epitomized the California male, and he prided himself on that,” Thomas said.

That embrace of California, she believes, helped establish his career over nearly 20 years as a reporter and editor for The Times.

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“Bill was a talented journalist, but more than that he was a wonderful man,” said William Nottingham, Editor of The Times Orange County edition. “Our newsroom will greatly miss the flashing eyes, bright smile and hearty hello he brought along whenever he walked through the door.

“He cared deeply about the people and communities he covered during his distinguished career here. Journalism in the public’s interest was his daily mission.”

Billiter died Saturday morning while driving along the Costa Mesa Freeway after competing in the 5K race in Irvine, Thomas said.

Details on the accident were not immediately available from the California Highway Patrol. A spokesman for the Orange County coroner’s office said it appeared that Billiter fell ill at the wheel about 9 a.m., and by the time rescue crews arrived was suffering a heart attack. An autopsy was scheduled for today.

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Billiter joined The Times in 1978 as a reporter in Los Angeles before becoming city editor of the Orange County edition. He tired of the stress of that job, though, and gave it up to become a reporter again. He retired from The Times in 1994, but continued working as a Times community correspondent.

“He was an excellent writer and an excellent city editor too,” said longtime friend Jackson Sellers, a computer systems editor for The Times.

Validation of his work came from his peers in 1994, when he received the Sky Dunlap Award from the Orange County Press Club in recognition of his journalistic career and contributions to Orange County, which included teaching part-time at UC Irvine Extension.

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Billiter also was well-known among Orange County runners and acted as a bridge between the newsroom and the streets as he convinced younger, more sedentary co-workers that if he could run competitively, so could they.

As proof, he ran the Los Angeles Marathon and Long Beach Marathon within a few weeks of each other. A flare-up of heart problems led to angioplasty in 1993, which knocked him out of marathons but not competition. He simply scaled back the distances, limiting himself--at his doctor’s urging--to 5K and 10K races, which he often won in his age division.

“He was real inspirational to a lot of people, a lot of runners,” said Dave Reynolds, owner of A Snail’s Pace Running Shop in Fountain Valley, where Billiter received his marathon training. “After he had his surgery, he came back running so well and just got stronger and stronger. He always had a great attitude, he was never down, always upbeat. I know a lot of people are going to be sad to hear his life was taken.”

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Steve Emmons, a longtime colleague at The Times, said Billiter’s heart problems led to running.

“That drove him to his physical fitness regimen,” said Emmons, a staff writer. “He appeared to be the bloom of health, as strong as an ox. If he slapped you on the back, you’d know for two weeks.”

Jerry Hicks, columnist for The Times, formerly worked for Billiter on the city desk of the Louisville Times. Hicks said Billiter, as a former political writer for the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal, developed a reputation as one of the most powerful journalists in Kentucky.

His work earned him a locally coveted prize: He was made a Kentucky Colonel, an honor bestowed by the state governor.

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“He was just a great reporter, the best,” said Hicks.

The professional dedication was a carry-over from his home life, Hicks said. Billiter gave up his post as political writer because it meant a lot of road trips around the state--time away from his wife and children.

“He was a great family man,” Hicks said.

Billiter had a wide range of hobbies, reflecting a broad curiosity that led him to take classes on everything from sailing to California history to frame-making.

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“He was always taking a class like that, to learn some new little craft,” said Thomas, his daughter.

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Billiter was born William Overton Billiter Jr. and took to newspaper work while still a teenager in Winchester, Ky., when at age 16 he started covering sports for the local daily, the Sun. While still in high school, he paid his first visit to California, driving cross-country with fellow students to compete in a debate at Pepperdine University, his daughter said.

“He fell in love with it, so it’s kind of full circle that he came back,” Thomas said.

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There were some stops in between. Billiter graduated in 1956 from the University of Kentucky, and went on to serve four years in the Air Force, primarily as a navigator stationed in San Antonio, Texas. He continued in the reserves, and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.

“He used to say that he was the worst navigator the Air Force ever had,” Thomas said. One story, she said, had him plotting an overland course from San Antonio to Houston and not knowing he had missed the city until the crew told him to look out the window, where they could see the Gulf of Mexico. “They used to say he could lose himself in his own backyard.”

Billiter worked for a succession of newspapers--including the Courier-Journal and the New Orleans Times-Picayune--before joining The Times. He also worked three years in Washington, D.C., as press secretary for U.S. Rep. F. Edward Hebert (D-La.), and spent a year teaching journalism at Ohio State University.

He landed at The Times in part because of his old friend Sellers. They had worked together in Louisville, and Sellers--who joined The Times in 1970--put in a call to Billiter when he heard of some openings at the paper in 1978.

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“There was snow on the ground in Louisville,” Sellers recalled. “It took him about 15 seconds to decide to leave cold Louisville and come to sunny Southern California.”

Billiter is survived by his wife, Maureen, who works in the classified department of The Times Orange County; two daughters, Thomas of Long Beach and Suzanne Billiter Faulkner of Ithaca, Wash.; two sons, Stephen Billiter of Orange and Patrick Billiter of Huntington Beach; and six grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were pending.


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