Former North Adams City Councilor Clark Billings remembered as 'honest,' 'spirited,' 'intelligent'

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This article has been modified to indicate that in the 1983 North Adams mayoral race, Clark Billings lost in the primary to former City Councilor Frances Buckley, who was then defeated by John Barrett III.

NORTH ADAMS — He had a sharp mind, a scathing wit, and the audacity to say what he really thought no matter how impolite.

The likes of former City Councilor Clark Billings, who died last weekend at age 77, has no match in the local political landscape, friends and colleagues say.

Adversaries, too.

"The one and only," said Alan Marden, a fellow city councilor for nearly 20 years. "You knew where Clark stood at all times, and more often than not, he was correct."

Not everyone thought so. But it didn't matter, because Billings dissected matters before the council and carefully honed his position on an issue.

"He did his homework," Marden said. "He liked a good fight, but it was always in the best interest of the city. He made his case very eloquently most of the time and if he lost, he lost."

"He turned off a lot of people that way, but he was honest," said Keith Bona, a fellow city councilor. "He offended people. He didn't worry about votes."

But Bona also said he saw Billings change his thinking over time, too.

Early on, Billings had been critical of the city becoming the contemporary arts hotbed it is now.

"But it grew on him," Bona added.

A charismatic North Adams State College (now MCLA) history professor with two cable access shows, Billings was a city councilor for most of two decades starting in 1980.

For 10 years, he was on the city's parks and recreation and human services commissions, and spent two years on the North Adams Redevelopment Authority.

It was an unsuccessful run for City Council in 1975 that "pushed him into politics," The Eagle previously reported. It was a loss that came after Billings had denounced a developer's plan for a downtown parking garage as an idea for "suckers."

Losing did not daunt the man.

Billings made an unsuccessful bid for county commissioner in 1988. And before that, he lost in the primary race for mayor in 1983 to Frances Buckley, who went on to be defeated by John Barrett III. Barrett is now running for the 1st Berkshire District seat in the state House of Representatives.

But Barrett, who said the two had been friends long before the race, said his win meant he'd have to stay on his toes as long as Billings was on the council.

"I had to be prepared when I went in there as mayor," Barrett said. "He was ready to challenge me. Sometimes he was on my side and sometimes he wasn't. It was never personal — a philosophical difference. He loved to stir the pot. That was his trademark."

Barrett said just before Billings left the council in 2009, he gave the pot one last stir.

"He was for adding a sewer fee [for taxpayers], knowing it would raise the hairs on everyone's necks," he said. "That was his final speech."

Laughing, Barrett said when he was out of office, current Mayor Richard Alcombright imposed the fee.

Alcombright said Billings had served the city well.

"He was a spirited guy, with a lot of passion," he said, "and intelligent."

Alcombright also said the Billings he knew was the father to his two sons. Alcombright used to play basketball with all of them, he added.

"[Billings] gave me a few elbows in the nose," he said.

Others say that when the fiery Billings wasn't wielding political daggers on the warpath against political correctness, he was kind, generous and genuine.

"People thought he was harsh and abrasive, but he was trying to get you to think more critically about something," said Pete White, a Pittsfield city councilor and one of Billings' history students.

White said Billings gave him great advice about running for political office, and more.

"He would give me a real-world perspective that what we would be learning in Western civilization still held true of lessons that needed to be applied today," he said.

And Billings had another platform for those lessons over the years: two cable access television shows, "The Devil's Advocate" and "Think About It!"

"He liked bringing up the other side, whatever that might be," said Dave Fabiano, executive director of North Berkshire Community Television.

Fabiano said Billings would often speak out against political correctness, and was scathing, for instance, about name changes for sports teams, like the college's switch from the Mohawks to the Trailblazers.

But Fabiano said Billings, despite being "gruff and short on air," was "a generous guy, and affable."

Bona said there were plenty of indicators that this was the case.

"There was a softer side of him that we didn't see," he said.

And that side of Billings was most evident in his decision to retire in 2009 so he could move with his wife, Janice, to Rhode Island to be closer to medical treatment for her multiple sclerosis, Bona said.

White said he had kept in touch with Billings over the years, occasionally talking, and through Facebook.

Billings was still igniting fires online, he said.

"Some people loved him, some people hated him," he said. "I've probably had to apologize more than once for comments he'd make on my Facebook wall. I'm really going to miss seeing a Billings post."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.


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