By Ken Gillespie
Shirli Billings’ career spans more than 40 years, with achievement starting early in life. She was chosen as “Girl Mayor” of Cincinnati in 1954. After college she spent several years teaching in the classroom. Moving into administration, she took an assignment as junior high principal in Lansing, Mich. It was there she first met young student Erwin Johnson, later known as Magic Johnson. A signed basketball is one of her treasures. While in Lansing, she worked toward and earned a PhD Degree from Ohio State University. Billings would eventually progress through several superintendent positions in public systems across several states. As an African American woman holding leadership roles in mainly white school systems during the ‘70s and ‘80s, she was a trailblazer during times of societal change.
Following years in public education she transitioned to the corporate world, first with Honeywell then later running her own training and development consultancy. During that time she also served on the board of directors of a major utility company in New Jersey, initially the lone woman and person of color. During her 30 year tenure, she recruited other highly capable women and minorities to the board.
Q: Any career roads not taken?
A: I was offered a job in the Boston school system as an area superintendent. This rising young woman from the midwest was romanced by city leaders to come and help shape their strategy for desegregation. I was assured that after spending a few years in this high profile role I could write my own ticket. A tenured position at Harvard was mentioned. But my mom weighed in on my decision. At that time there had been several murders of professional black women in the Boston area at the hands of a serial killer. Mom got emotional and pleaded that I shouldn’t put myself in harms way. I declined the job.
Q: You’ve had some interesting side roads out of public education.
A: While in the Education Leadership and Policy PhD program, I also decided to pursue a number of business courses. During my service as superintendent of schools in a suburb of Minneapolis, Honeywell recruited me into for-profit corporate life. Given my background in education, they were interested in my taking over their in-house leadership school. But the hiring officer suggested I might initially best serve the company in a profit center that was facing operational challenges. This led to a role running an $800 million division in the armaments business, “bombs and bullets.” Eventually I did turn to human resource development, taking on a global role as vice president for HRD.
Q: You place high value on family.
A: Mom died at the age of 97. She raised six kids with me being the second oldest. My siblings often saw me as their “bossy big sis.” Mom raised all of us quite well. One brother became a pro football player. My sister was a noted New York fashion designer. Another brother became a criminologist with undercover assignments in white collar crime. I myself came late to family and motherhood due to my career being all-consuming for so many years. At the age of 57 I was fortunate to adopt a baby boy as a single parent. My Joshua is now 21 and the focus of much of my life.
Q: What brought you to Florida?
A: Ohio’s weather was a factor. Snow and cold didn’t agree with my arthritic joints. When Joshua was looking for college we both rated warm weather high as a criteria. I bought my present house in Nocatee while he was still in high school, but rented it out for a year. After he signed on to Florida Southern University we moved here. It was difficult leaving family and friends in the midwest and I still miss them, but for now I’m comfortable with new friends I’ve made here.
Q: What lies ahead?
A: Our family seems to have good longevity genes and I’m hopeful for a solid number of years ahead. My son is encouraging me to follow some long held dreams. One is to capture my life and career experience in writing and become a motivational speaker. I’ve had a few privileges in my life along with some tough learning experiences I would like to share. I believe I can help younger women with advice and perspective.
Photo courtesy Shirli Billings
Shirli Billings and son Joshua