WIOD host, Miami News writer Billie O’Day dies

Billie Corinne Womack was an original from the day she was born — Oct. 1, 1919 — in Little Rock, Ark.

Growing up in Pine Bluff, she played football in seventh grade — until someone realized she was a girl — and while in junior high, conducted the town’s high school band.

When she got into radio on WIOD in Miami in the 1940s, she changed her name to Billie O’Day. She became an editor at the old Miami News, leading the Woman’s World section to several major journalism awards, wrote a column called Miami Women in the News, edited the travel and television sections, conducted the Miami Symphonic Society Orchestra, and was music editor of Miami Magazine.

O’Day died March 11 at Baptist Hospital, said her nephew and only relative, Tommy Majors, of Arkansas. She was 93, and suffered from intestinal disease.

Majors said she’d spent her final years at The Palace in Kendall, having traveled widely and given generously to relatives.

O’Day came to Miami in 1943 with her widowed mother, Lillian Davis “Little Mo’’ Womack after graduating from Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., the previous year.

In notes she jotted down about her life, she said that they moved into “a little frame house next door to my aunt, purchased the previous year for $800.’’

She made the second violin section in the University of Miami symphony orchestra, which “doubled as Miami’s professional orchestra,’’ she wrote.

Realizing that the football season was approaching and the university lacked a band, she determined to form one, gathering up a group of high school kids, soldiers and sailors.

It sounded “fine,’’ she reported. “Composer Henry Filmore said so, and so did Bertha Foster, one of the founders of the university and dean of the School of Music.’’

On a whim, Billie decided to knock on the studio door at WIOD, then on the fourth floor of the old Miami News building, the Freedom Tower, having no expectation that “anyone would hire me to fiddle on the air.’’

They did, however, hire her as a music librarian, then put her on the air when the “women’s commentator’’ left to have a baby. She kept the job for 14 years.

“Miami in those days had a small town feel,’’ O’Day wrote. “Anyone who was anyone ended up on radio across the microphone from me: Mrs. FDR, Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers, Adlai Stevenson.’’

At the same time, O’Day pursued her musical avocation.

“In the early ’50s, I was first chair (concert master) of the newly formed Miami Symphonic Society Orchestra, a businessmen’s (and women’s) symphony...Our rehearsal hall was in the Miami Incinerator [building] where we practiced amidst the muted thumps and whumps of the dump trucks.

“Our [70-piece] orchestra dedicated Miami’s Torch of Freedom, the Japanese Tea Garden and the First Unitarian Church.’’

She recalling doing “a lot of pay-for-play violin jobs both on stage at conventions and strolling with other violinists in the hotel dining rooms and private clubs.

“As a newspaper woman, I ate at the head table. As a strolling musician at a ritzy club, I ate in the kitchen.’’

She wrote about “trading the microphone for the typewriter in 1958,’’ and becoming Women’s Editor in 1963, then appearing on the game show “What’s My Line” in 1964 after her section won the Penney-Missouri Award for the nation’s top women’s section — beating out both The Miami Herald and The Washington Post.

Interviews, she wrote, were her favorite assignments: “Pearl Bailey, Greer Garson, Debbie Reynolds, Carol Channing, Jimmy Stewart, Dorothy McGuire, Shirley Jones, Polly Bergen, Georgia Gibbs, Jill St. John, Eartha Kitt, Clare Booth Luce, Sarah Vaughan, Martha Mitchell, Tricia Nixon, Isaac Stern, Vladimir Horowitz and [Luciano] Pavarotti.’’

O’Day lived with her mother until Little Mo died in 1967, then alone for her remaining years.

When O’Day retired on Sept. 7, 1984, the Miami News stopped the presses to add a front-page story to the final edition lauding her.

Colleagues wrote that she was known for her “in-depth interviews,’’ her music criticism, and her “unselfish service.’’ They called her “a ferocious sports fan, golfer and intrepid world traveler.’’

Majors said that O’Day “could be found on the sidelines during spring and fall practice’’ of the UM Hurricanes, “knew all the players, coaches and their capabilities.’’

“The best way to see a football game is on the field,’’ O’Day wrote: “a sideline pass kept me legal when I roamed the sidelines at the University of Miami football games at the Orange Bowl.’’

Summing herself up in her notes, Billie O’Day wrote: “I believed Anita Hill. My favorite TV shows are ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ ‘Brooklyn Bridge,’ ‘Murder She Wrote,’ ‘The Civil War,’ and any other documentary by Ken Burns.

“I watch CNN and C-Span. I go to lunch every day with my next-door neighbor, a Juilliard grad and a terrific vocalist and pianist. I don’t go out at night.’’

In conclusion, she asked a question: “Is Miami as weird as it sounds from afar? Oh yeah! I had two cars stolen right out of my driveway.’’

No service was held.

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