Kurt Hilding Billing, a mainstay in Southampton known for teaching hundreds—perhaps thousands—of local children over the years how to swim at Big Fresh Pond, local beaches and in backyard pools, took his own life on February 3 at his home in North Sea. He was 47.
Mr. Billing suffered from Lyme disease for the past 10 years, the symptoms of which can include severe depression and confusion. He had been symptom free for years, but late last fall he had a relapse, his family said.
Born on January 24, 1962, Mr. Billing was known by many as “Nature,” a nickname picked up during his high school years that followed him throughout life. He graduated from Southampton High School in 1980 and went on to earn a business degree from the University of Richmond in Virginia.
After college, Mr. Billing spent a couple years traveling the country and did a stint as a computer salesman in Washington. When he returned home to Southampton in 1986, he took over the family swimming instruction business from his sister, Donna Billing, who had taken it over from their mother, Florence. Florence Billing, who started the business more than 40 years ago, passed it to her children so she could open four women’s clothing stores—Billing’s Lingerie, Billing’s Country Shop, Billing’s Bridal Salon and Lady Billing’s, all in Southampton Village—which Mr. Billing helped manage, but are now all closed.
Mr. Billing learned to swim while tagging along at his mother’s swimming classes. He could swim all the way across Big Fresh Pond and back when he was just 6 years old, his sister, Diane McGann, recalled on Monday.
“You could tell it was a passion, and he was just so good at it,” Ms. McGann said. “He knew how to read a student, and he knew just how far to push to get results. ... It built up their self-esteem.”
Most of the swimming classes were held at the same Billing-family lake-front property on Big Fresh Pond where his mother had first given lessons.
“He was a strong believer in teaching at the lake,” Ms. McGann said. She explained that he wanted new swimmers to learn to be comfortable swimming long distances in open water.
“Along with so many other families, my three children all learned to swim, and to be good sportsmen and women, with Kurt Billing at Fresh Pond,” Grethe Holby Elgort, a part-time Southampton resident, said this week. “I often swam the lake alongside the groups, and for many hours upon hours sat up on the lawn watching the incredible lessons going on down below. Not only lessons in swimming, but self preservation, safety, goal setting, pushing oneself to explore one’s full potential—in terms of life, not in terms of being the best swimmer, or an Olympic swimmer, but in terms of personal accomplishment.”
“He was more than a ‘swim instructor.’” Donna Billing’s husband, Alex Oliva, said. “He took it to the highest degree.”
Mr. Billing’s catch phrase was “Keep up the good work,” and he didn’t just say it to his students. Ms. Billing said he would say that to her every time they ended a phone conversation.
Ms. McGann and Ms. Billing said their brother had a “big kid” personality, taking after their late father, Hilding “Hank” Billing.
“He had this huge enthusiasm and excitement for life,” Ms. Billing said of her brother. She said every outing together, whether it be hiking or ice skating, was a grand event. “He just made it like the biggest adventure in the world.”
Mr. Billing had a passion for travel. He had been to all 50 states, South Africa, Australia, Nepal and the Scandinavian countries, including Sweden, where he visited relatives. He was also an avid photographer and documented his journeys. “He has a huge collection of slides, which he enjoyed sharing with his friends and family,” Ms. Billing said.
Mr. Billing was also a preservationist. He got his start at 24 years old, when he took out a $25,000 personal loan to help preserve an $85,000 1-acre parcel on Big Fresh Pond that he brought to the attention of the Peconic Land Trust.
“That was really inspiring for a young person to devote that kind of money,” Peconic Land Trust President John v.H. Halsey said Monday.
Mr. Billing became a member of the Peconic Land Trust’s stewardship committee and fought to preserve Tuckahoe Woods in North Sea.
“He knew that part of North Sea like the back of his hand,” Mr. Halsey said. “He spent a lot of time as a boy running through those woods.”
Mr. Billing also served on the boards of the Group for the South Fork, the Southampton Trails Preservation Society and the Southampton Town Trails Advisory Committee.
On top of swimming lessons, volunteering and traveling, Mr. Billing was a caddy at National Golf Links of America in Southampton, a motocross rider and a volunteer forest-fire fighter.