March 29, 1938 – April 10, 2022
From the Editor: Jacquilyn Billey had a distinguished, graceful, and dignified career in the National Federation of the Blind. There was no office at the chapter or affiliate level she did not hold or help others to conduct, and she served as the Connecticut state president as noted later in this article. I remember her most fondly for traveling tirelessly around our nation to recruit members and spread the news about this transformative organization that changed lives and increased opportunities for blind people. She will always be a treasure in my memory, and I feel blessed to have known her and had her as a friend and a member of my Federation family. Here is what was posted online on April 15, 2022 and published in the Journal & Courier (jconline.com).
Our dear mother, grandmother, and trusted friend Jacquilyn Billey passed away peacefully on April 10 holding the hands of her daughters. We reflect on the many wonderful qualities she had and the many contributions to our community that she made.
Jacquilyn was born in Wentworth, South Dakota. She was a surprise twin born the day after her sister Marilyn. Their brother Terry was born a year later, so they were all very close growing up. She was also very close with her extended family. Her mom Cosette "Corky" Nicholson had been the youngest of ten children, so there were many aunts, uncles, and cousins who loved each other very much and stayed in close contact all her life. She loved farm life: chewing oats, milking cows, and watching the crops grow.
Jacquilyn started working early in life. At twelve years old, she was helping in the telephone office in Wentworth. You can still visit the building where she was a switchboard operator at Prairie Village. At twenty, she wanted to try living in New York City, so she wrote ahead to a boarding school and got a job as a teacher with housing on the campus. She taught by day and helped take care of the children in the evenings.
Jacquilyn was a very good student. She went to college at General Beadle (now known as Dakota State University). In college she was voted Miss Personality. Upon graduation, she returned to New York City as a teacher. After a time she wanted to further her education, so she enrolled in Hunter College and received her master’s degree in education. She specialized in teaching second grade and special education.
During that time in New York, Jacquilyn met her life partner John Billey, who was there as an exchange student from West Virginia University. Jacquilyn and John married on April 10, 1965. Jacquilyn and John were both intelligent, courageous, loving blind people who supported each other throughout their lives. They have two loving daughters and four wonderful grandchildren who follow in their footsteps.
Jacquilyn worked her entire adult life to better the lives of others. She was a teacher in Newark, NJ, in the 1960s. In the 1970s, she created and directed a program at Manchester Community College to do job training and placement for mentally disabled adults. After graduation from the program, they often got good jobs in the mailrooms and cafeterias of insurance and aerospace companies. During that time, Jacquilyn became the president of the Connecticut affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), a position she held from 1984 to 1990. She oversaw an extensive fundraising and awareness effort that helped the members, through scholarships, to get training in Braille, cane travel, attend college, go to NFB conventions, and to buy computers and other equipment necessary for their careers. There was no email, Facebook, or texting back then; all of her organizational efforts were done via phone conversations and meetings.
In 1984 Jacquilyn took a new job with the National Federation of the Blind which gave her the opportunity to visit almost every state in the country. Her task was to build new chapters of the NFB where none existed and to support the smaller chapters that wanted to grow. The adventures of so much travel were exciting and challenging at times. Like many blind travelers, she depended on her white cane for independence. It was also a symbol of her cause to support and promote the lives of blind people. She carried her NFB-labeled white cane proudly everywhere she went.
In 1988 Jacquilyn was given the Jacobus tenBroek Award from the National Federation of the Blind. This award is for her "dedication, sacrifice, and commitment on behalf of the blind of the nation." She truly gave her all to the organization and to its members.
In the early 1990s, Jacquilyn was ready to set down roots again and took a position as the regional coordinator for the Roswell Office of the Commission for the Blind in New Mexico. She cherished her clients and did all she could to support them in their education, development, and career goals. She also embraced the culture of the Southwest, cooking with hot chili peppers, and listening to opera in Santa Fe.
When Jacquilyn retired, she promptly moved to West Lafayette, Indiana, to be closer to family. She enjoyed time with her grandchildren and made many cherished friends. She took daily walks and found peace in doing yoga.
Jacquilyn leaves behind a legacy of activism, inspiration, and kindness. She was a brave woman who was full of hope for the world. Her friend Janie said recently in a note to Jackie, "I love you because of your sweet outlook on life – always ready to see the good in any circumstances. That's an inspiration. My glass—from my perspective—has always been HALF EMPTY! Not yours—Full to the BRINK!"
Several people commented that she was a friend to all people no matter their race, education, abilities/disabilities, political orientation, or gender identity. Ever Lee Hairston, a member of the NFB Board of Directors, said "Jacquilyn reached out to blind people from her heart. I vividly remember she invited me to my first NFB convention in 1987." That convention was transformational for Ever Lee, like so many other blind people. She said, "Jacquilyn was loved for her inspiration and kindness. Be at peace with that. Follow her lead. Live your life."
Jacquilyn Billey was survived by her two daughters Sara Billey (husband Paul Viola), Andrea Gray (husband Don Gray), grandchildren Alan, Elias, Marisa, and Meredith, her sister-in-law Beth Holland, niece Sonya Holland, niece-in-law Susan Holland, grandniece Tera, and many cousins, friends, and fellow blind people around the world. She was preceded in death by her husband Dr. John E. Billey, sister Marilyn Opfer and brother-in-law Bill Opfer, brother Terry Holland, mother Corky Nicholson, and her nephew Jeff Holland.
Donations in Jacquilyn's honor can be sent to the National Federation of the Blind (nfb.org/get-involved/ways-give). Include Jacquilyn Billey's name with the donation. An annual scholarship will be named after her. Pictures and remembrances of Jacquilyn Billey can be sent to the family at [email protected]. A memorial service will be held in Wentworth, South Dakota, at Rose Hill Cemetery on Memorial Day Weekend, May 29, 2022.