In 1990 and 1992 I made this series of portraits of individuals more than seventy years old and living independently in and around Durham, North Carolina. The attached texts were written by Nicholas Sholley from interviews he conducted with each person. My portraits were published in 1997 by W. W. Norton in Old and On Their Own with additional photographs by Thomas Roma of elderly in Brooklyn, New York, and text by Robert Coles.
Dwight Billings was born in 1910 in Washington, D.C. His father was an IRS agent specializing in corporation tax law, and his mother, a pianist and a singer. Dwight was the first of three sons. When he was six, his father was transferred to Indiana, and the family followed.
Dwight went to Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, then to Butler University to study botany. When he applied to graduate school, Duke was the first to accept him, so he went there. He completed his master’s and doctorate (quantitative studies on old field short leaf pine succession in the Duke Forest) in three years, studying under Henry Oosting.
After graduating from Duke, Dwight took a temporary teaching job at the University of Tennessee for a year. Despite the tight job market, Dwight was then hired at the University of Nevada at Reno. In Reno, he was ideally positioned between two divergent environments: the Sierra Nevada to the west and the desert to the east. Here he began what was to be his life’s work in arctic/alpine/desert research while he guided undergraduate students into the botanical world.
In the mid-1950’s, Dwight was asked by Oosting to come back to teach in Duke’s botany department. Oosting was still teaching but could no longer handle a full load of graduate students. Dwight began guiding Phd. candidates in their research and heading far-flung expeditions to the arctic circle, the Andes, and the mountains of New Zealand.
In 1958, he married Shirley Miller in Laramie, Wyoming. Over the years, they traveled together on several of his expeditions. Oosting died in 1968, leaving Dwight with a total of thirty-three graduate students to tend, twenty-four of whom were doctoral candidates. Since that time, he has gone from being the only full professor in the department specializing in ecology, to being one of eight in the field. Dwight retired in 1980 though he continued to take on graduate students until 1985.
Currently he is busy writing articles on climatic changes and the effect of warming on ecosystems. A James B. Duke Professor Emeritus, Dwight continues to teach a course to undergraduates in the spring entitled “The Changing Biosphere: Past, Present, and Future.” However, in the spring of 1993, he may take a sabbatical and travel to New Zealand with his Shirley.
Dwight is photographed in his Duke office. Above his shoulder is a mobile ‘family tree’ which includes the names of all the Phd. recipients he has tutored. (written in 1992)