World-class master’s athlete, coach, sports administrator, and indefatigable worker for the performing arts in Rhode Island, Billie Ann Burrill’s talents have known no bounds. While she was director of the Health and Physical Education Department at Rhode Island College, her drive and enthusiasm enabled the school’s Performing Arts Series to become the finest in the state.
Burrill was born in Joliet, Illinois on March 11, 1921. She served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. During her four-and-a-half years of service, she rose from private to captain and spent time in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Following her military career, she received an undergraduate degree from Boston University and a master’s degree from Smith College and taught briefly at the University of Connecticut and Connecticut College.
In 1954 she began her 26-year career at Rhode Island College in the Department of Health and Physical Education, which included service as department chair. Billie taught golf and folk dance and coached the school’s fencing team to national prominence while organizing the New England Women’s Intercollegiate Fencing Association and serving as its president.
Billie’s passion was dance. She was the co-founder and a director of the RIC Dance Company from 1956 to 1959. Billie learned stage lighting from premier Broadway lighting designer Tom Skeleton and formed the first all-women lighting team, specializing in a type of spot lighting called follow-spot.
Billie was a true artist in lighting design and stage management. She served seven summers at the American Dance Festival as production stage manager, and was the business manager for the legendary Paul Taylor Dance Company during its formative years, the stage manager for the first-ever performance of modern dance at Lincoln Center in New York and the technical director and lighting designer for the RIC Dance Company for twenty years. As director of RIC’s acclaimed Performing Arts Series, she was singlehandedly responsible for the cultural expansion and success of this popular cultural venue.
After retiring from Rhode Island College in 1980, Billie began to swim to ease the pain of arthritis at the age of 64. Before long, she developed into one of the world’s best master’s swimmers, winning nearly 300 gold medals and setting individual world records in her age group in the 800-meter freestyle and the 1500-meter long course. For these achievements, Burrill, who has been listed in Who’s Who of American Women,was inducted into the Rhode Island Aquatic Hall of Fame and the Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame.
Always looking for a new challenge, Burrill celebrated her 75th birthday in 1996 by going skydiving. In her retirement years she maintained a one-quarter-acre organic “victory” garden at her North Providence home, where she tied up its plants and vegetables with ribbons from her many swimming medals. Billie died in March, 2010 at the age of eighty-eight.
– Michael E. Lyons