Prolific and widely published journalist and author Billy Porterfield, who helped put Texas on the map as a literary destination, died Sunday after a long illness. He was 81.
Born in Henderson the son of a journeyman oil patch worker, Porterfield moved multiple times before he reached adulthood and landed at the Houston Chronicle. He later won the Scripps Howard Ernie Pyle Memorial award and took his work ethic to the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Daily News, the Dallas Times Herald and the American-Statesman. Among many major stories, Porterfield covered civil rights marches of the 1960s.
“He was an unusual man,” said his son, Winton Porterfield. “He was a force of nature really, kind of a walking thunderstorm. He was very creative, he was passionate, he was tempestuous, he was profane, he loved ideas and he loved words and books. Obviously he loved women; he was married six times. He loved whiskey and dogs and cheeseburgers. He was a really good dancer and he didn’t wear underwear. He was a short man but a man in full.”
“He had a piece of literature in daily newspapers,” said author and former Texas Institute of Letters President W.K. “Kip” Stratton. “He was a master of the newspaper column. I’ve looked back at the stuff he did for the Dallas Times Herald, which I think in some ways was when he was at his peak, and those columns are really remarkable. You would find stuff that was really funny or really informative or really moving. That came in your daily paper. Achieving that level of writing in Texas newspapers, I’m trying to think if anybody hit that level of consistency with such a singular voice. It’s a loss to Texas.”
Porterfield became the first Dobie Paisano fellow at the University of Texas in 1967 and two years later moved to Dallas to help Jim Lehrer with his nightly news show, which later migrated to PBS and continues today. After leaving the Times Herald, beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing for about a decade, he wrote a column for the American-Statesman. He was also a prolific author whose books include the memoir “Diddy Waw Diddy: The Passage of an American Son,” “Texas Rhapsody: Memories of a Native Son” and “LBJ Country.”
Longtime friend Diana Hendricks said Porterfield found his voice observing people during his itinerant upbringing.
“He was able, having grown up in 17 towns before he was 17, to grab those characters that passed through life,” Hendricks said. “He could make heroes out of people some of us might not have noticed. When you go back and read ‘A Loose Herd of Texans,’ he could take a fence builder in Kenedy, Texas, and write about him with the same eloquence as he wrote about Lyndon Johnson.”
In 2010, Porterfield donated his papers and archives to the Southwestern Writers Collection, a part of the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.
A memorial service is planned for this summer, likely in Wimberley, near where Porterfield lived and wrote. Updates will be available at billyporterfield.com, which Monday carried news of the writer’s death. It also carried this excerpt from “Texas Rhapsody,” which captures Porterfield’s voice, experience and humble view of his chosen trade:
“I covered murders and manhunts and talked to men about to sit in the electric chair. I was with Meredith and King and Carmichael when they marched through Mississippi. … I have talked to astronauts and assassins. I have supped with presidents and sipped with peons. I have entered worlds my old man could never imagine. But he always told people I type for a living.”
He is survived by his wife, Diane Barnard Porterfield, of Wimberley; his children, Erin Porterfield of Tyler, Winton Porterfield of San Marcos, Oren Porterfield of Austin; Meredith Roach of Austin; and Nashu Barnard of Haslet; a sister, Joyce Porterfield Baugh of Woodsboro and a brother, Bobby Porterfield of Dripping Springs.