Porterfield, Billy Mack (1932–2014)

By: Robert J. Duncan

Type: Biography

Published: May 25, 2016

Updated: March 6, 2021

Billy Mack Porterfield, journalist, author, television news commentator, and educator, was born in Henderson, Rusk County, Texas, to Tice Covey Porterfield and Janavee Elizabeth (Harrell) Porterfield, on October 16, 1932. Tice Porterfield, an oilfield worker, led a nomadic life. Consequently, the family moved frequently. Billy lived in or near seventeen towns during his first thirteen years. Most of the towns were in Texas, but once or twice the family veered into Oklahoma and lived there briefly. Billy’s brother, Bobby Lee, was born in 1933, and his sister, Joyce Dawn, in 1937.

After World War II began, Tice Porterfield secured a job as a pipe fitter in Corpus Christi, and the family moved there. As children, Billy and Bobby played music in a hillbilly band, the Corpus Christi Corncobbers. When Billy was thirteen years old, the family moved to Woodsboro in Refugio County, and Tice drilled oil wells in that vicinity for several years. The family remained in Woodsboro until Billy graduated from high school in 1950 and left home to attend college. Billy Porterfield was one of several high school graduates who won music scholarships to Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, and he attended college there in 1951. The following year, Bobby graduated from high school, and the brothers attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University) in San Marcos. There, Billy joined the staff of the College Star student newspaper.

After college, Porterfield worked as a reporter for the New Braunfels Zeitung, which published editions in both English and German. By early 1956 he was working as a cub police reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Billy had a flair for the eccentric; for example, when college buddies visited, he took down the window curtains to use as blankets and offered the visitors copies of the Houston Chronicle to use for toilet paper. One day in Houston his car stopped running. He pushed it into a nearby gas station, left it, and never went back.

One of Porterfield’s early Chronicle assignments involved coverage of Elvis Presley’s first concert appearance in Houston on April 21, 1956. With a headline of “Squeals, Moans and Screams,” he wrote, “A tall young giant from Tennessee strode out on the stage of Memorial Auditorium Saturday night—and pandemonium reigned.”

In Houston Porterfield met and dated Mary Jo Reid, a young Houston school teacher who was a neighbor in his apartment building. Jo later wrote, “Bill combed his curly hair in a pompadour and a ducktail and wore black muscle shirts, black pants, and no underwear.” They married ten months later on August 24, 1958. Two years later their daughter Erin was born. In March 1964 son Winton was born. Porterfield won an Ernie Pyle Award for 1963, given by Scripps Howard Foundation. In February 1965 he won the Texas Institute of Letters Stanley Walker Memorial Award for his Houston Chronicle feature series entitled “The President’s Homeland.” The Saturday Evening Post reprinted a version of the series on October 3, 1964. His book LBJ Country, published in 1965 by Doubleday, grew from that material and research. In the 1960s Porterfield covered civil rights marches in the Deep South and wrote other articles for the Detroit Free Press and the Chicago Daily News. Tice Porterfield, whose formal education hadn’t progressed beyond the seventh grade, took a dim view of his son’s chosen profession. Bill once wrote:

I have covered murders and manhunts, and talked to men about to sit in the electric chair. I have reported from the eye of hurricanes. I was with Meredith and King and Carmichael when they marched through Mississippi. I have been roughed up by rednecks... I have been 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. I have entered worlds my old man cannot imagine. But he always told people I type for a living.

In 1967 Porterfield returned to Texas when he was selected as the first recipient of the prestigious Paisano Fellowship. He resided for six months at the Paisano Ranch near Austin that had been writer J. Frank Dobie’s personal retreat. In 1968 Bill and his young family moved to Austin, where he did freelance writing assignments, and Jo attended graduate school at the University of Texas.

In 1969 Bill Porterfield became commentator on Jim Lehrer’s news program Newsroom on Dallas public television station KERA-TV. Later Porterfield was promoted to Newsroom’s executive producer. While there, he produced and narrated some prize-winning public television documentaries.

Porterfield and his wife amicably divorced in October 1973 in Dallas County. Jo’s article “A Divorce Made in Heaven” was originally published in Houston City Magazine, reprinted in D Magazine in October 1981, and subsequently anthologized in 1982 in a book entitled Her Work, Stories by Texas Women. On April 27, 1975, Billy Porterfield married Sally Griffith, who worked as a waitress in Dallas. They divorced in June 1977.

Porterfield became a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald in 1978 and worked there until 1985. During his Dallas years, he taught creative writing as an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and was a mentor to many of his students. In March and April of 1986 Porterfield participated as a lecturer and book discussion leader in a statewide program called “Texas Voices: 1936–1986” in celebration of the Texas Sesquicentennial. The program was sponsored by the Texas Library Association, the Texas State Library, and East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University at Commerce) and was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Five books by Texans were selected for discussion in five bi-weekly sessions at fifty public libraries across the state. Porterfield lectured and led the discussions at several libraries on the late Billy Lee Brammer’s novel, The Gay Place, about Texas, and Austin, politics. Brammer had worked for Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. Allegedly one of the main characters in the novel was based on Johnson.

On January 9, 1982, Porterfield married Nanette Fodell who was twenty-seven years his junior. They soon moved to Miller Grove, a tiny village in Hopkins County. Their daughter, Oren, was born in April 1984. The couple divorced in Hopkins County in September 1987.

In 1985 Billy became a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. His column ran on the front page of the Metro section for approximately a decade. He married Diane S. Mallin on January 19, 1991, and they lived in Wimberley in Hays County. His study was a detached building that he called his “House of Fables.”

In 2010 Porterfield donated his papers, which comprise about thirty-five boxes, to the Wittliff Collections at the Alkek Library at Texas State University in San Marcos. Upon that occasion he said:

To have my scraps and memories included with the papers of so many writers I admire and so many friends I’ve grown up with—or grown old with—is a great honor. Hart Stilwell, Elithe Kirkland, A. C. Greene—these were dear friends who had a profound influence on my life and work. Somewhere down the road, a young writer may stumble in and find his muse tucked away in one of these old boxes of words that we have left behind. But ask him to be gentle with her when he finds her. She has served us well.

In addition to LBJ Country, Porterfield published The Book of Dallas (with Evelyn Oppenheimer) (1976), A Loose Herd of Texans (1978), Texas Rhapsody: Memories of a Native Son (1981), The Greatest Honky-Tonks in Texas (1983), Fathers & Daughters (1988), and Diddy Waw Diddy: Passage of an American Son (1994). He also contributed a chapter or a substantive introduction to many other books and publications, including Growing Up in Texas (1972), Dreamscapes: A Portfolio of Eight Paintings (1982), Texas (with photographer Phil Hollenbeck) (1985), Unknown Texas (1988), Texas Humoresque: Lone Star Humorists from Then Till Now: An Anthology (1990) and Fifty Years of the Texas Observer (2004).

Porterfield also wrote articles for the Chautauquan, The Christian Science Monitor, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, DuPont Context magazine, D Magazine, Malakoff News, New York Herald Tribune, Southwest Review, Texas Monthly, New York Times Magazine, and the Texas Observer. Most of Porterfield’s books and articles were signed simply Bill Porterfield, but in a few of them he used the name Billy Porterfield or Billy Mack Porterfield. In addition to the awards mentioned previously, Porterfield won a second Stanley Walker Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, a George Foster Peabody Award, a gold medal from the Atlanta Film Festival, and a 1986 Texas Associated Press Managing Editors first place award for Class AAAA General Column Writing (for his columns in the Dallas Times Herald).

Porterfield suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during the final years of his life. He died on Sunday, June 29, 2014, in Seton Hospital in Kyle, Texas. He was eighty-one years of age. Survivors included his wife Diane, his children, his brother and sister, and eleven grandchildren. Writer Bill Wittliff later said, “Billy was a terrific guy and a splendid writer.” On July 27, 2014, a memorial celebration of Bill Porterfield’s life was held in San Marcos at Cheatham Street Warehouse. At Porterfield’s death, W.K. “Kip” Stratton, a former president of the Texas Institute of Letters, said of him:

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.

In addition to Porterfield’s four wives of record, there was one other that he was married to for a few months before the marriage was annulled, and yet another woman who Billy always said he should have married. Soon after Billy’s death, his son Winton said of him (and he included those two women “in that number” when he spoke of Billy’s wives):

He was an unusual man. 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.

Eric Aasen & Stella M. Chávez, “Billy Porterfield, Longtime Texas Journalist and KERA Producer, Dies at 81,” July 1, 2014, KERA News (http://keranews.org/post/billy-porterfield-longtime-texas-journalist-and-kera-producer-dies-81), accessed  February 11, 2016. Austin American-Statesman, July 1, 2014. Jo Brans, “A Divorce Made in Heaven,” in Lou Halsell Rodenberger, ed., Her Work: Stories by Texas Women (Bryan, Texas: Shearer Publishing, 1982). Corpus Christi Caller-Times, September 25, 1951; January 24, 1964; February 21, 1965. Dallas Morning News, January 7, 1979; March 30, 1986; April 13, 1986; September 1, 1991; July 1, 2014. Bertha McKee Dobie, et al., Growing Up in Texas (Austin: Encino Press, 1972). Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 12, 1993. Mexia Daily News, January 11, 1977. Bill Porterfield, Texas Rhapsody: Memories of a Native Son (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981).  Billy Porterfield, Diddy Waw Diddy: Passage of an American Son (Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 1994). Billy Porterfield, Writer (http://www.billyporterfield.com/), accessed February 11, 2016. Billy Porterfield Papers, The Wittliff Collections, Albert B. Alkek Library, Texas State University. Winton Porterfield, Email correspondence to the author, February 24, 2016. San Marcos Mercury, July 8, 2014. Bill Wittliff, Email correspondence to the author, January 24, 2015.   

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Time Periods:
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert J. Duncan, “Porterfield, Billy Mack,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/porterfield-billy-mack.

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May 25, 2016
March 6, 2021

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