Dalila “Billie” Yvonne Reyna Dolenz, 85, passed away Thursday, June 15, 2023, at her home. She was born May 12, 1938, in Mission, Texas. Although Gertrudis and Mauro L. Reyna wrote “Dalila Yvonne” on their daughter’s birth certificate, they immediately started having other ideas. After all, Dalila means delicate, and that didn’t quite seem to fit “Billie,” as her father soon began calling her. He thought that Billie was a tomboy, yet many recognized her as a striking beauty. She was smart, determined, and knew her own mind, so her preferred name of Billie soon started to appear on everything.
Raised along the Rio Grande River Valley around two small towns called Peñitas and La Joya, Texas, Billie knew the agricultural life of that region well. Her maternal Cavazos family settled in what today would become South Texas when in 1792 the San Juan de Carricitos land grant was given by the Spanish Crown to Jose Narciso Cavazos. Encompassing more than 584,000 acres, this was the largest Spanish land grant in South Texas, larger than the original King Ranch, which later bought sections of the Cavazos land.
The Reynas, her father’s family, ran farms, oversaw citrus operations, were involved in Democratic politics, and regularly served on the school board. The surname “Reyna” meant Queen, and some people joked that they weren’t sure whether it referred to the family or simply to Billie herself. As she grew, Billie regularly collected awards such as the Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter sweetheart and Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Citizenship Award. Sadly, Billie lost her father M. L. Reyna in 1950 when he was 46 and she was only 12.
Billie and her family were steeped in their Catholic faith, education, and politics. Billie chose nursing as a vocation because she believed in the caring and healing of others. Inspired by Sisters of the Incarnate Word, Billie graduated in 1958 from James R. Dougherty School of Nursing in Corpus Christi, becoming a Registered Nurse at age 20. A year earlier, Billie had served as president of the junior class.
With her nursing degree completed, Billie took a job as a psychiatric nurse at the University of Texas Medical Branch Hospital in Galveston. Although she had met and was dating her future husband, Bernard J. Dolenz, Billie decided to set her job aside and enjoy life as a flight attendant for Pan American World Airways. She lasted barely a week when the plane on which she was working became disabled and left her overseas, scrambling to get back to the United States. Billie and Dr. Bernard J. Dolenz, a psychiatric resident, married in 1959.
The young couple lived in Dallas and Jackson, LA, and established their family, before moving to Fort Worth in 1962. The 1960s, Billie remembered, were filled not only with pregnancies and diapers, but proving yourself to be the perfect doctor’s wife and helping Bernard establish the private psychiatric hospital that would support them. At the time, it was the only private psychiatric hospital in Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Billie was never paid for her shifts, but often worked at night so that she could be home to fix dinner and see her children when they got out of school.
Dinnertime was when another one of Billie’s skills was useful. She had played the flute as a high school student, and it helped her develop strong lips. They were essential to an ear-piercing whistle that could be heard anywhere up and down Mistletoe Drive when it was time for the children to come home for dinner.
Billie’s religious and volunteer lives were closely intertwined, especially when her children were young. She went by St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church on Magnolia at least once a week for decades, helping with whatever they needed. Her preferred day for mass at Our Lady of Victory was on Monday because, she jested, “God is not as busy on Monday.”
Billie was elected as vice-president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Diocesan Council of the National Council of Catholic Women, while she served as president of the Fort Worth council. She also served as an officer for the Catholic Daughters of America. Billie also joined secular clubs such as Roundelay and Theresians. When the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History opened a medical exhibit, Billie chaired a convention for over 500 high school students who were interested in medical careers. Newspaper articles frequently noted that Billie was regularly hosting meetings of garden clubs for Catholic churches.
She also became involved in the political work for which her family was well known. Billie was a guest at the fateful November 22, 1963, breakfast for John F. Kennedy at the Hotel Texas and volunteered for Jim Wright’s congressional campaigns. She hosted political fundraisers for Jim Hightower, Henry Cisneros, and Lloyd Doggett at her Mistletoe Drive home and one for Kinky Friedman at the ranch she called home beginning in 1991.
As the 1970s dawned and her children grew older, Billie’s political work expanded, particularly her involvement with the League of Women Voters and serving as Election Judge for her voting precinct at Lilly B Clayton. The Westcliff unit met regularly at her spacious and historic Mission Revival home on Mistletoe Drive. Her name appeared – sometimes with her husband’s – on lists of those who supported a particular candidate.
In one of her more unusual endeavors, Billie, Bernard, and Joe Lazo, Jr. opened the Casa de Rey, a Mexican restaurant, at 1812 North Forest Park Boulevard in 1973; it was open through November 1975.
Billie and Bernard divorced in 1980. It was a freeing move. Billie obtained a degree from Saint Joseph’s College of Standish, Maine, joined the board of Jubilee Theatre, and expanded her work with the Pan American Round Table, helping to develop a scholarship program for Hispanic students to attend college.
Billie’s work as a nurse also broadened. Many students came to know Billie’s love when she served as a school nurse – everywhere from Our Mother of Mercy to All Saints Catholic to St. Mary of the Assumption to St Peter’s. She worked for Family Services Hospice (her only paying job after she married) while continuing to volunteer as a school nurse. Throughout her nursing career, Billie saw the difficult side of family life and growing up. No one should have to choose between the sanctity of life and the horrible things that happen to women – but Billie always believed that it was a choice that should be available.
In 1985 Billie hosted Cesar Chavez in the first of two visits related to the failure to enforce settlements related to the harvest of California table grapes (minimum wage, collective bargaining, and outlawing child labor) which led to a second United Farm Worker boycott. During a 1990 visit to Billie Dolenz’ home, Chavez emphasized the environmental and health concerns which those picking grapes faced after being sprayed with pesticides.
Billie was included on the 1995 100 Great Nurses list from the Texas Nurses Association and, in 1996, was honored by a Volunteer of the Year Award for her work at Family Services Hospice. She later won a national Jefferson Award for outstanding public service for her work as a nurse and volunteer at Daggett Elementary School, traveling to Washington, D. C to be honored with other volunteers from around the United States.
Billie continued her stellar volunteer work as a docent at the Amon Carter Museum and the Fort Worth Zoo while still organizing voter awareness rallies and events. She also volunteered at the Benbrook Public Library, benefitting her life-long interest in education. Most recently, students in a North Side school researched Billie’s life and work and recreated her many significant endeavors using Barbie dolls.
In 1982, Billie met her longtime friend and partner, John Morris. The two grew close working for the state Democratic party and the Sierra Club. They remained life-long friends until the end. Billie cherished her South Texas agricultural roots, so in 1991 she left “the white house,” built a home, moved to her property southwest of Fort Worth off U. S. Highway 377, and established what came to be known as Rancho Reyna. There, she welcomed friends and family for political fundraisers (progressive Democrats predominated), spiritual retreats, and a place to enjoy a sunrise coffee or sunset sangria.
Billie was a Democrat born and bred. Some Republicans tried to insult Billie by calling her a “Save the World Democrat.” She wore it as a badge of honor and lived her life with that mission in mind. Billie frequently noted that there were three constants in her life: she would always be a Democrat, a Catholic (but open to all faith traditions), and nurse. All those roles supported her life’s mission.
Billie lived her faith daily. She was a tireless volunteer who gave her best to help those who did not have a voice. She worked for civil rights, voters rights, women’s rights, and other humanitarian causes.
Billie was preceded in death by her parents, Gertrudis “Tula” Cavazos Reyna, and Mauro L. Reyna.
She is survived her children, Bruce Joseph (Pam Dolenz), Brenda Jean (O. Z. Helmer), Brigid Joan (John Breazeale), Brian Jay (Debbie Dolenz), and Beverly Joyce (Tom Walsh); her many grandchildren, and great grandchildren; and is also survived by many friends. She was loved by all and gave her best toward loving everyone.
Services: Rosary and Memorial: 4 p.m., Friday, July 7th at Winscott Road Funeral Home, 1001 Winscott Road, Benbrook, Texas 76126. Funeral Mass: 10 a.m., Saturday, July 8th at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church, 509 West Magnolia, Fort Worth, Texas 76104. There will be a later Memorial and Celebration of Life sometime this fall at Rancho Reyna.
In lieu of flowers, please make a gift in memory of Billie to organizations that truly reflect her life work and heartfelt values. The following have a special place of remembrance for Billie, Doctors without Borders (https://donate.doctorswithoutborders.org), The Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur / Our Lady of Victory in Fort Worth (www.ssmnwestern.org), and Planned Parenthood (www.weareplannedparenthoodaction.org).