Madera County Historical Society
Twenty-five years ago, Grady Billington celebrated his retirement from Madera Unified at a fiesta held in his honor. He is seen here with Cecilia Rios after she asked him to join her in a traditional Mexican dance.
If God wills it, I am going to Grady Billington’s funeral today. He died Monday, and like a lot of other people, I’ve been thinking about him. Grady will be missed for a lot of reasons, and not the least of these is the generosity of his soul.
My first real encounter with Grady came in 1985 when my 6th grade class at Howard School was working on the Minturn project. Ed Gwartney had told us about three old graves on the banks of the Chowchilla River, and we were interested enough to want to write a book about them.
We were also interested in cleaning up the little, weed-choked family cemetery that held the Minturns, and Grady found out about it.
We set the day, and Grady met us at the graves with some friends. One brought his welding equipment and the other came with a portable cement mixer. They worked all afternoon repairing the broken-down fence and pouring cement around the tombstones so that vandals couldn’t tip them over again.
When the job was all finished, Grady just stood back puffing on his pipe and looking over his glasses, while nodding his approval.
He didn't have to spend that entire Saturday afternoon helping a teacher and his kids clean up that graveyard, but he did. He was generous of soul.
Then there was the time when my 8th grade class at Berenda linked up with classes in Houston, Austin, El Paso and Tucson in another history project. Each class sent representatives to Madera for the culmination of the project, and several families hosted our young guests for several days, including the Billingtons — another example of the generosity of their souls.
Grady surprised me at the intensity of his involvement with the Fossil Discovery Center. Not only was he its first director, but during its first year of operation, he almost single-handedly kept it alive.
Michelle Pacina, Ed.D, the current director, says that in the beginning Grady opened and closed the Center each day himself.
Pacina said Billington was determined not to allow the center to fail. He constantly sought out patrons and led fundraising drives, according to Pacina.
In addition to being a generous soul, Grady was easy to be around. He was relaxed in conversation and non-combative in temperament. This was brought home to me in 2002 when we sat down to talk about his involvement in the creation of Madera Unified School District.
Billington referred to those days as “the dark ages.”
He remembered the instability of the former system that had nine tiny school districts attempting to operate independently and often competitively. The former Berenda superintendent recalled that many country schools often began a school year without teachers for all of the children. With a sly grin, he admitted to raiding the Dixieland School District, headhunting for teachers and luring them to his school with the promise of more money and free living quarters on the school grounds.
Without acrimony, he remembered the days when some of the three-man boards hired and fired the teachers, with the principal having little to say in the matter.
He remembered the days of no school lunches at Berenda, of a school bus that was in constant need of repair, and he remembered when about half of his students were taken to Madera schools because the educational program was considered superior to what was offered at his school.
Billington, unification was the salvation of his school, and he did not oppose it, although it could have affected him adversely. Unlike some others, he did not rant and rave in an effort to protect his turf. The generosity of his soul demanded that he embrace what was best for his community.
So, Grady has moved on, but he has left so much with us. That’s what happens when a person lives an unselfish, generous life.