Biology professor Dr. Neil Billington working with area elementary students during the annual Groundwater Festival at the Troy Campus.
The Troy University family was saddened to learn of the death of one of its own, Dr. Neil Billington, professor of molecular ecology. Billington was found dead in his Troy home on Wednesday, Jan. 18, of apparent natural causes. He was 59.
The self-described “Fifth Beatle,” was a native of Manchester, England and had completed his studies at Loughborough University, culminating in the Ph. D. in 1985. He joined the TROY faculty in 2000, and was an internationally recognized expert in fish genetics and aquatic ecology.
“The hallways of McCall Hall will be a little less cheerful with his passing,” said Dr. Steven Taylor, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who joined the faculty just two years before Billington. “Dr. Billington was a valued member of the Troy University community and a prominent presence in the College of Arts and Sciences. We in the College are currently in a state of shock. I know his colleagues and students in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences are especially hard hit by this news.”
Billington was known for his humor, always taking a chance to use his English accent to his own purposes – many times pushing the ruse he had been the “Fifth Beatle,” referring to the British band.
“Because he was from England, people thought he knew a lot about the Beatles and he exploited that and said his accent gave him credibility that was unearned,” said his longtime-friend and department chair Dr. Glenn Cohen. “He told people that in some ways he was ‘really the fifth Beatle’ and what he didn’t know about the group he just made up. He was even on the radio up in Illinois some when he was there.”
Billington held a variety of academic positions during his time in the Americas – including stints at Pennsylvania’s Shippensburg University, the University of Maine at Machias and Southern Illinois University. He researched polar bears in Churchill, Canada and studied aquaculture in the Great Lakes. He became an expert in fish genetics. When the University announced its plans to expand the biological and environmental sciences, Billington heard about it and applied.
“He came down here and everyone liked him, but, by the standards of the times, he was counterculture,” Cohen said. “He came in wearing earrings, so we told him to take the earrings off when he interviewed with the provost and chancellor. The rest is history.”
It was a good history for the many TROY students who he taught.
“Over the years, a great number of graduate students finished their theses under him and he taught a wide variety of courses,” Cohen said. “Because of this background, he taught genetics courses and even graduate statistics, but he defined himself as an aquatic biologist.”
While his depth of academic experience qualified him to teach in several subjects, Cohen said, however, it was his ability to connect with students and to listen to them that made him such an impactful teacher.
“He was a very popular teacher because he was such a good story teller and because he listened to his students. He was never brash with them and they felt they had a surrogate parent in him because he was such a good listener,” Cohen said. “He was a ‘full’ person. That’s what we’ll miss the most. Some people you work with never reveal their true selves . . . but he was a full person and you knew him in total. That’s why we’ll miss him for quite some time to come.”