San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

Porterfield told stories — the universal and the intimate — with a distinctive style and keen ear for both the spoken and written word. 

July 8th, 2014
Billy Porterfield, 1932 to 2014


WIMBERLEYBilly Porterfield, an accomplished journalist who blazed a trail through newsrooms from Dallas to Detroit, died Sunday, June 29 following a slow descent into Alzheimer’s disease.

During a storied career that spanned more than a half-century, Porterfield told stories — the universal and the intimate — with a distinctive style and a keen ear for both the spoken and written word. He worked alongside Dan Rather, Jim Lehrer and other giants of the profession.

“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 been roughed up by rednecks because I was a ‘nigger-loving newsman’ and beaten by rioting blacks because I was ‘a honky newsman.’ I have sat down with whores and princesses. I have talked to astronauts and assassins. I have supped with presidents and sipped with peons,” he wrote of his career.

As his lively life as a journalist wound down, Porterfield retired with his wife to a hilltop retreat near Wimberley. There, he wiled away hours in a shed he christened “The House of Fables,” where he worked on “a brace of novels, a wing of short stories, a poke of profiles, a blindfold and a dare of adventure sagas, and a grab bag of audacious essays and cognations.”

Porterfield was born October 16, 1932 in the East Texas town of Henderson to Tice Covey Porterfield, a nomadic oilfield roustabout, and Janavee Elizabeth Harrell Porterfield. As his family chased the latest oil strike, Porterfield attended dozens of schools, “liv[ing] upon the flat bosom of many a hot, naked prairie,” he later wrote. Porterfield’s wandering childhood informed his work — much of which takes place on the road — as well as his approach to finding stories. Curiosity, a notepad, a map and a full tank of gas were the tools of his trade.

In 1950, he graduated from Woodsboro High School in Refugio County and moved two years later to San Marcos with his brother, Bobby Porterfield. He enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, now Texas State University, where he wrote for the College Star student newspaper, his first journalism job. Out of college, he was hired by the Houston Chronicle where he was assigned to the crime beat and, by the early 1960s, had built a name for himself for compelling, sometimes unconventional, storytelling. After winning the Ernie Pyle Award for human interest stories, Porterfield landed jobs covering national stories like the Civil Rights movement for the Detroit Free Press and later the Chicago Daily News.

In 1967, Porterfield returned to Texas to become the first writer selected for the prestigious Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, a year-long berth at the legendary author J. Frank Dobie’s secluded retreat in the Hill County southwest of Austin. After his fellowship, he became a commentator on Jim Lehrer’s nightly news program on KERA-TV in Dallas, later taking over as Lehrer’s executive producer. 
In 1978, Porterfield became a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald and, in 1985, he joined the Austin American-Statesman as a marquee columnist on the front page of the Metro section.

His writings have appeared in a number of publications, large and small, including The Saturday Evening Post, Texas Monthly, The New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, the Malakoff News, and The Chautauquan. He also taught creative writing at Southern Methodist University, and shared his wit, wisdom, writing talent, survival skills and stories with a small circle of honored mentees and friends.

Go there

Billy Porterfield memorial celebration, reunion of friends, family, and colleagues and gathering of onlookers and random characters
Cheatham Street Warehouse
119 Cheatham St. | Map
2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Sunday, July 27

Visit the Billy Porterfield website

Memorial donations can be made in Porterfield’s name to Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections or to the University Star Scholarship Endowment fund. Donations can be mailed to:

Texas State University
Office of Donor Services
601 University Dr.
J.C. Kellam Building, Room 480
San Marcos, TX 78666

The family wishes to thank the staff of the memory care unit of the San Marcos Rehabilitation Center, formerly Texan Nursing Center, for their love and care for Billy in his final years, and the staff of Seton Hospital in Kyle for their support in his final days.

A prolific storyteller, Porterfield’s published books include “LBJ Country” (1965), “A Loose Herd of Texans” (1978), “Texas Rhapsody: Memories of a Native Son” (1981), “The Greatest Honky-Tonks in Texas” (1983), and “Diddy Waw Diddy: The Passage of an American Son” (1994).

In 2010, Porterfield donated his archives to the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections. His cataloged archive of clippings, correspondence, manuscripts and memorabilia fills about 35 boxes. At the collection, his archives join those of his friends and mentors, Hart Stillwell, Elithe Kirkland, and A.C. Greene.

Porterfield is survived by his wife, Diane Barnard Porterfield of Wimberley, and by five children: Erin Porterfield of Tyler; Winton Porterfield and his wife, Kim Porterfield, of San Marcos; Oren Porterfield and her husband, Jordan Moser, of Austin; Meredith Roach and her husband, Chris Roach, of Austin; and Nashu Barnard and his wife, Rachel Barnard, of Haslet. He is also survived by his lifelong best friend and “almost twin” brother, Bobby Porterfield of Dripping Springs; sister Joyce Porterfield Baugh and her husband, Jimmy Baugh, of Woodsboro; mother-in-law Doris Jean Mallin of North Hills, Calif. and of Wimberley; and brother-in–law Chuck Mallin and his wife, Julia Mallin, of Fort Worth.

Porterfield also leaves behind 11 grandchildren: Bailey Devine of Fort Worth; Zane Porterfield Liston of Tyler; Carlie Porterfield and Sara Jo Porterfield of San Marcos; Samantha Barnard, Fox BarnardBrooklyn Barnard, Crystal Bishop and Matthew Bishop of Haslet; and Emory Roach and Annaliese Roach of Austin. In addition to numerous cousins, nieces and nephews, Porterfield is survived by close family friends David Liston, Carolyn Sherman Gonzales, and Diana Finlay Hendricks.

COVER: A young Billy Porterfield interviews an unidentified police officer while working as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle during the late 1950s or early 60s. SUBMITTED PHOTO

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