Virginia Billings still works at the tire company she started with her late husband 45 years ago.
She handles all of the bookkeeping and secretarial duties for Billings Tire & Service Center, now owned by her son Jeff Billings. And at least three days a week, she takes the 12 employees, who all call her “Mom,” baked goodies. She also brings employees cookies on their birthdays.
“She’s ‘Mom,’” Billings said, adding that she always has taken care of everyone there. “She’s amazing. She can work anytime she wants or anytime she doesn’t.”
Dave Havens recently retired from the business and said he will miss Mrs. Billings.
“She’s a super lady,” he said. “We all love her a lot.”
Mrs. Billings and her late husband, M.R. Billings, started the tire company in 1969 at 1313 W. Erwin St.
Billings, 53, grew up in the family business and his earliest memory of the shop was the smell of bread coming from Flowers Baking Co. across the street. He started working there when he was 14, mounting tires, sweeping floors and doing whatever his father told him to do. He worked at the shop while attending Tyler Junior College and The University of Texas at Tyler and bought the business about 20 years ago.
In 2004, he moved Billings Tire to Grande Boulevard because “Tyler is growing this way.” He said the move was big for the business.
The business is much more than a tire shop. It also does general maintenance and repair, oil changes, alignments and more. Billings said the biggest changes he has seen in the industry over the years is the diversity of different sizes of tires now available and the technology in cars that makes them more difficult to repair.
“We love what we do,” Billings said, adding that what he loves most about the business is “the people.”
Several of his employees have worked there for years, and Billings also has a lot of longtime clients.
“I have customers who have watched me grow up,” he said.
His longest employee, Dave Havens, 65, recently retired from the tire company.
“I want to thank him for giving me 18 years of his life,” Billings said of Havens. “He’s like part of the family.”
Havens said Billings has been a great boss and a good friend.
The men met playing softball. Havens said he played in Tyler for about 10 years.
Havens said he played a little of what they called “scrub ball” growing up because the small town he grew up in, about 30 miles outside of Mineral Wells, didn’t have enough boys for a baseball team. There were only five students in his class in the two-room school he attended.
The youngest of nine boys, Havens served as a green beret in the Army and was a weapons specialist based at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. After serving for three years, narrowly missing combat in Vietnam, he briefly drove a commissary truck for Texas International Airlines in Houston before going to work pumping gas. When the mechanic at the gas station left, he was asked to step in and learn the trade.
Havens followed his brother to Tyler and worked as a mechanic for Jack O’Diamonds and the now closed Francis Automotive for 16 years before knee problems led him to start looking for different work.
“Bending over a car all day was killing me,” he said.
He went to work for Billings as service manager in 1996. There, he did a little bit of everything at the shop — from taking in inventory, supervising and helping employees, caring for customers and answering the phones.
“I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” he said. “I helped keep the business running smoothly; whatever it took to make that happen is what I tried to do.”
Havens said what he liked most about being a mechanic was that every day was different and he felt a sense of accomplishment after watching a car that was broken being driven out of the shop. What he’ll miss most about the tire shop are the people.
“I love people. … We don’t meet strangers,” he said.
Havens said he misses being busy.
“I’ve worked all my life,” he said. “It seems strange not to work.”
“It seems strange not to have him here,” Billings chimed in.
Havens planned to retire on March 15 but broke his knee cap a month before and is still recovering.
“Him breaking his knee threw a wrench into his retirement,” Billings said.
But he plans to hold a dinner for him in a few weeks to celebrate.
After his knee is healed, Havens looks forward to fishing and volunteering. He still works on cars and is a “rough carpenter,” so he has built or mended things voluntarily for people at his church, he said. He has built furniture and helped remodel homes and when he was in eighth grade, helped his father turn a couple of out buildings and scrap lumber from an old VFW facility into a home.
As much as he loves Tyler, Havens said he hopes to move back to Mineral Wells to help his allergies.
Now that Havens is gone, Billings said, “I’m the old man here now.”