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He paid for school by moonlighting as a magician in clubs around Provo. His illusions impressed a fellow student, Tonja Anderson, who had also been raised Mormon and had come from the same high school -- they'd both also been high school cheerleaders. But Tonja remembers that Billings' hydrogen-powered Model A awed her even more than his card tricks. "Sometimes on a beautiful day I'd be going to class, and he'd show up in the Model A and say, 'Let's just go for a ride instead,'" Tonja recalls. "It was wonderful. The ride was smooth and nice. Every once in a while you'd hear a backfire."
While they were still in college, the two married and had their first child. Then, Billings says, on the verge of graduating from BYU, he received a high-profile visitor who had flown in to look at his car: Bill Lear, inventor of the Learjet and founder of Lear Ziegler.
"I had an amazing stroke of good fortune," Billings says. "Bill Lear came by the university, saw my hydrogen car and decided he wanted me to be his protégé." Billings says when he asked Lear how much the position paid, Lear scoffed, offended, and told Billings that if he worked with Lear for two years, he'd quickly become a millionaire.
"So a week later he flew in, picked me up in his Learjet and took me home. And I actually lived in his home and followed him around," Billings says.
Billings flushes with excitement as he cranks up the story to its surprise conclusion. "So three years later, I called up Bill Lear, told him I'd started a company [Billings Energy], the company had gone public and I was sending him $250,000 worth of stock," Billings says. Lear refused. Billings insisted, telling the aviation expert, then in his late 70s, that he just wanted to pay him back somehow for all his help.
Billings leans in, his eyes gleaming, and, after a pause, continues. "And Bill Lear said to me, 'Let me tell you something. A long, long time ago, I had this identical conversation with my mentor, and he told me if I wanted to pay him back, I should help someone else.' Well, he had never said anything about a mentor. So I asked who was his mentor," Billings says. "He said it was Thomas Edison."
With Billings Energy doing well, Billings also founded a computer company and began going to trade shows. He took out patents on some computer technologies that would later lead to a long legal battle with computer company Novell -- a battle that eventually gained him more attention than his hydrogen exploits.
One of Billings' former BYU professors, who later worked for him as a consultant, remembers that his computer venture produced a reliable product -- a compact machine with a good operating system. But Billings the inventor was far outshined by Billings the marketer. "Roger is one of the best salesmen that I have ever met in my entire life," says Gordon Stokes, who saw Billings in action at trade shows. "Roger is so flamboyant. At a computer show once, he had the Billings computers in these really showy chrome cases, and he was standing in front of them in a long coat and a top hat doing magic tricks to draw a crowd."