The Billings Outpost

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Fox was solid mayor, even better teacher

EDITOR’S NOTE: Three-term Billings Mayor William Fox died July 7 of cancer  at his daughter and son-in-law’s home in Luther. He was 84.


Hank Williams died in 1953, probably but not certainly, in the Knoxville Hotel in Knoxville, Tenn., of a combination of alcohol and morphine. He was 29.


“Hey Good Looking, What ya got cooking?” The sound seemed to come out of the sun. It was beamed my way from the center of an Ipana bright smile.

The phrase opened a song written and recorded by Hank Williams in 1951. The voice in the hall belonged to my sixth-grade teacher, William Fox. The song would earn Hank Williams and his heirs millions of dollars. Mr. Fox would earn hundreds of dollars teaching fifth- and sixth-graders in Custer.

Hullo, Mr. Fox, I said.

Better hurry to class, he said.

Mr. Fox taught more than the three “R’s.” He taught young people to think. Forget true and false tests. His quizzes required a student to recall a stack of facts, mix with imagination and deliver a product that may not have existed a few minutes earlier.

I recall a test that asked us to imagine we were the mayor of a small town. The town needed a new water tower. The tower could be a cylinder or a lollipop.

I spent five minutes looking at my feet. Then my gaze drifted out the window. Finally, I started listing information. The cylinder would hold more water but be more expensive to maintain. The lollipop would be more likely to freeze but would cost less to build. Built to the same height, the two towers would deliver the same water pressure.

Finally, I concluded that I had too little information to build the tower. I answered the question, “Not enough  information.”

Mr. Fox gave me credit for my list of facts and gave me a C on the test.

A strong Puritan thread ran through Fox’s pedagogy and politics. Once a student stood before the class explaining how to field dress a deer.

The kid’s use of the word “guts” drew a cold frown from our teacher. The kid sputtered and, after a couple of false starts, drew a smile from Mr. Fox with the substitution, “entrails.”

Mr. Fox was the first and best male teacher I ever had. Years passed before we met again at City Hall in Billings where he had just filed to run for the City Council.

Fox gave reporters copies of a brief resume and biography. I marked up my copy with a red pencil and gave it back to him. I graded it C -.

He deserved better, but a semi-reformed juvenile delinquent could not resist an impish opportunity.

Fox came to Custer a Korean War vet and product of the GI Bill. He had paid his dues, leaving a foot in Asia. The amputation left him with a slight limp.

He won election to the council during a contentious time in city affairs. City politics had been nonpartisan but never dull for decades until one council member filed as a Republican. Two members of the council declared themselves Democrats and seven filed as Republicans.

Before there were R’s and D’s, there was a faction that wanted the Public Utilities director’s head. There were factions that sided with developers,  factions who hated developers and a faction that wanted to toss in all the cards and give the citizens a new deal.

The quit-and-start-over gang won. An elected City Study Commission designed a new government. The new order would give the mayor’s power to hire and fire department heads to a professional city manager. The manager would be hired by (and could only be fired by) the City Council. In other cities, this arrangement is called the manager/council form of government.

There is really no place for a mayor in manager/council governments, but the study commission tossed one in just for fun.

The study commissioners worried that supporters of Mayor Joe Leone would fight the adoption of a new government that eliminated Papa Joe’s job.

The new mayor could not hire anyone, could not fire anyone and drew a part-timer’s salary. This was not the job Councilman Fox had in mind, but he filed for the post anyway.

He won the election and served three terms as Billings’ first mayor under the new charter.

On the eve of his first election, Fox and I made a pact. I promised not to lie about him if he would never tell the truth about me.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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