George Harrington Billings, who from his earliest years swam and sailed the waters of Buzzards Bay, died August 20 at his home overlooking those waters at Gunning Point, Sippewissett. He was 71 and had suffered from cancer.
To his family and multitude of friends, he was an extraordinary swimmer, sailor, gardener, storyteller, host and party-giver. One described his “sparkling wit and intellect, kindness and generosity, and buoyant spirit, and the way his eyes lit up with joy when surrounded by friends, family, and his devoted dog Lily.”
At age 57, on a morning marked by high winds and choppy sea, he swam from Nobska Point, Woods Hole, to Martha’s Vineyard, a distance of 4.5-current-swept miles, an achievement he had set his sights on when he was 10 years old.
The house in which he spent his last years is the last surviving of the first three summer homes built at Gunning Point in the early 1900s. It was bought in 1907 by Mr. Billings’s grandfather, Judge Charles H. Robb—a judge on the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington. The home later passed to his parents, Elliott A. and Priscilla Robb Billings, and their six children.
For many years the family’s year-round home was in Florida, where Elliot Billings, a senior pilot for Pan American Airways, was based. But they summered at Gunning Point, driving in a single car, north from Florida in spring, and south in autumn. In 1960, when Elliot Billings shifted to New York-based Trans-Atlantic flights, the family moved year-round to Gunning Point. George, then 10, entered the Village School in Falmouth.
Although Mr. Billings spent his high school years at Phillips Academy at Andover, graduating in 1968, he retained membership in the class he had left at Lawrence High School, and he faithfully attended reunions of that class, as well as reunions of his Andover class and his 1972 class at Brown University.
After topping off his Brown degree with an MBA from Harvard Business School, he plunged into the burgeoning cellular communications and satellite television industries. Settling in Washington, DC, he joined a management analysis firm specializing in strategic planning, finance and marketing. That experience led to a position as a senior advisor on corporate development for COMSAT, the company created by the Communications Satellite Act of 1962,which called for creation of a commercial communications satellite system.
In June 1980 Mr. Billings was named vice president for business development of COMSAT’s subsidiary, Satellite Television Corp., which was developing a satellite-to-home television service.
Making his mark at this level, he was invited to serve as a board member of many new and growing companies. And to assist those who sought his management advice, he established his own consulting company, Billlings & Co., serving clients ranging from large corporations to those in development stages.
In returning years later to his family’s home, Mr. Billings sought not to retire, but to locate his activities in business, civic involvement and philanthropy in the place he loved best, with his office in the attic of the house overlooking Buzzards Bay.
He was a lifelong member of the Quissett Yacht Club and an active board member of the Quissett Harbor House Land Trust. He participated on the board of overseers of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. He supported local environmental organizations such as the Quissett Harbor Preservation Trust, The 300 Committee, Salt Pond Area Bird Sanctuaries and the Woodwell Climate Research Center.
An active supporter of every school he attended, he served on the annual giving board of Phillips Academy at Andover. At Brown University, where he was elected president of his class of 1972, he served on many boards and committees, including as a trustee on the university’s corporation, its highest governing body. He was elected secretary and president of the Brown Alumni Association, co-chairman of the Brown entrepreneurship initiative, and a member of the Brown Annual Fund Executive Committee. In 2002 he received the Brown Alumni Association’s Service Award, and in 2008 the Brown Bear Sward, Brown’s highest award for alumni service.
On the day of his death, Dr. Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, visited his bedside, conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, and presented him a doctoral hood. Although he was unable to speak, his face lit up with a huge grin. Throughout his life he spread light and love, right to the end.
George Billings leaves his brothers Charles Billings and his wife, Sharon, and John Billings and his wife, Bridget; a sister, Cynthia Billings Atwood and her husband Wallace Atwood; and sisters-in-law Barbara Billings and Ruth Billings; as well as many nieces and nephews; and godchildren whom he considered family.
His brothers, the Reverend Stephen Billings and Roger Billings and a niece predeceased him.
In light of COVID guidelines, an in-person memorial service at Church of the Messiah, Woods Hole, on Saturday, September 25, at 10:30 AM, will be limited to family and extended family. The service will be broadcast live via Zoom, and friends are encouraged to participate virtually. For Zoom information email the Church of the Messiah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A celebration of life for friends and family will take place at the Woods Hole Golf Club, 130 Quissett Avenue, Woods Hole, on Saturday, October 9, from noon to 2 PM.