Willy Sorbie 1897-1977

and the Healey Family


William Sorbie, born July 9th, 1897 at 12, Lockhart Street, Stonehouse had a varied and interesting life and was by all accounts a real character. 'Willy' as he was known, was the youngest child of Thomas Sorbie and Jane Burke and was seen as the baby of the family. On the family photo featured on the 'Home Page' of this website he is the young boy with the curly locks standing between his parents. However he was as tough as the rest of his family at an early age he followed in his father and brother's footsteps by going to work down the Lanarkshire mines.

At the age of only 19 he took part in the notorious Battle of the Somme in Belgium as a machine gunner in the legendary 42nd Royal Highland Regiment, otherwise known as the 'Black Watch'. It was here that he received a shrapnel wound above his knee, almost losing his leg and requiring an amount of surgery in later years.

In the First World War, more than 50,000 men passed through the Black Watch Regiment, of whom 8,000 were killed and over 20,000 wounded. Before 1914 the Black Watch had won 20 battle honours. In WWI they were awarded another 69 for their actions.

William pictured in his youth.

Willy's grandson Tim Healey, now a Professor of  Mathematics at Cornell University, recalls the following tale : "..  here's a story from my grandfather about his mother, Jane Burke (everybody called her "Jean" - that's why so many of the daughters of her children were named Jean).  Apparently, it was quite the thing to go to the silent movies in those days in Stonehouse (probably right after WWI).  Although a ticket bought one a "seat" on a  hard bench, one could purchase a cushion for an additional fee.  

One evening Willy was there with a certain Mary Gilhouly, for whom he had purchased a cushion. His mother also happened to be there that night with one of her friends. Apparently, she wasn't exactly thrilled to see her son there with Mary (obviously an Irish-Catholic girl!). When she saw him after the movie, she teased him as follows:  "So - I saw you last night. There was your poor mither with no cushin for her arse, but Mary Gilhouly had one for hers!"  To this day in our (Healey-Sorbie) family, when someone is complaining too much about something, we say "what do you want - a cushin for your arse..?"

Willy as a young man with a female friend (identity unknown).

After marrying Janet Duffus, Willy emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1923 and made his home in O'Fallon, Illinois, not far from his brothers Tom and John who lived in Gillespie. They had one daughter, Jean Agnes. Here he continued his work from Scotland and again went down the coal mines, joining a number of fellow townsmen who had already emigrated to the U.S.A. Tim Healey remembers his grandfather recalling his days in the mines with pride, " Tim, you should've seen me when I was down in the mines - by Christ, I was strong in those days."

Janet Duffus, Willy's wife.

 In 1926 he lost the sight of his eye in a pit accident and decided to come out of the mine. With the help of his brother Mitchell, who lived in St.Louis he moved to the city where he worked for six months on an automobile assembly line, but this was not to his liking.

Willy, left, in the 1920's with nephew 'Kenosha' Tom Sorbie, and Tom's new "Model T" car.

Willy had joined the 'Caledonia Society' in St.Louis and there he met Judge John Calhoun who was also a member and he arranged an interview with 'Colonel' Morris Boorstin, a senior official of  Washington University, St.Louis. Willy got the job, it was now 1927 and he spent the remaining 40 years of his working career as a Janitor but also 'Philosopher in residence' as he was affectionately termed .

Willy married Janet Duffus on May 8th 1930. Janet was born in Glasgow, Scotland, so their only child Jean was never far away from the tales and tradition of the old country. 

Robert and Jean Healey née Sorbie.

Jean married Robert Healey from St.Louis in June 1952 and they had five children; four boys and one girl, who between them gave Willy and Janet 13 great grandchildren.

Willy's five grandchildren, L-R Janet, Tim, Bob, Glenn and Mike Healey. Pictured at Bob Jnr's wedding in June 1994.

Tim Healey in 1999 with wife Judith and daughters, Megan, Elizabeth and Maureen.

Tim recites another story about Willy's quick witted humour "..My grandfather was a very funny man. He knew hundreds of jokes, and he was a wonderful storyteller. He should have been a stand-up comic (although his job at the Art School at Washington U. certainly provided him an ample stage for 40 years). At any rate, here's the story. One time my mother took some pictures at his birthday (I can't remember the year, but I was just a kid - sometime in the 60's). When the pictures came back, my mother showed them to my grandparents. Upon seeing them, my grandfather said, "Oh dear oh dear, I look terrible". And my grandmother then said to him, "Oh for Christ sake Bill, what do you expect at your age - to look like Cary Grant?" And my grandfather immediately responded, "No, by Christ, but I didn't know I looked like Ulysses S. Grant". Even today, we all still laugh at this one in my family!"

Another tale is told by Sandy Clark, Willy's great niece "I remember the one when Uncle Bill was in the hospital and he asked the doctor if he could play the piano when he recovered. I can't remember why he was hospitalized. Anyway, the doctor assured him he would be able to play the piano. To that Uncle Bill replied, That's good, because I never could play before. The doctors and nurses were entertained the entire time he was there I am quite sure.."

In April 1967 Willy retired at the age of 70. At the university he was nicknamed 'Sandy' because of his striking red hair. Below is a transposition of a feature in the "St.Louis Post Dispatch" newspaper that pays a warm tribute to him and his achievements at the university.

"Bidding Sandy And His Broom Farewell"

"William Sorbie, Janitor and Philosopher in Residence, Is Retiring at Washington University after 40 years".

"...A notice to the alumni and students of the School of Fine Arts at Washington University informs them that there is to be a large gap in the social structure there. The sculpting, painting, designing will go on, but not as usual, because it will be quieter. A familiar interruption is departing.

The notice reads: "..Sandy's Night - You remember Sandy. He's been around for some 99 years. Sandy is the sanitary engineer janitor in Bixby Hall but he's been more than a janitor - he's a comedian, a singer, a philosopher - in short Sandy's an institution, and Sandy is retiring. Come to a party for Sandy, the night of his last working day on Friday March 31st at 8.30pm in Alumni house, 6310 Ellenwood (former residence of the Chancellor)..".

The keeper of the broom closet, or the all-purpose handyman, or the field house superintendent, who has played the game of staying young with generations of students is a necessity at a university. The collection of university traditions is not complete without one. The ivy won't grow right without him. William Sorbie, the Sandy of the notice, has been building that role since 1927 and he's done it naturally, but not carelessly or without awareness of what he's about. He is also leaving with confidence that the Ivy should flourish nicely, because he's given it a full 40 years of his Scot's touch.

He knows about the plan to make his retirement day close with a party. He finds it appropriate. A campus historian says that an Employees' club was organised in the 1930's and Sorbie was prominent in it's administration, a guiding light, a heavy pourer... He appreciates a party. He will be asked to sing, as always and he will oblige. When he first was going to parties at Washington University, Sorbie had a fine tenor voice. Now the voice is baritone, but a man does deepen with age and Sorbie is 70.

When we met at Bixby Hall he asked if I had visited the School of Fine Arts before, and the negative answer was to his liking. It allowed him to conduct a tour. The building could be walked through in 15 minutes, with stops at all the water fountains, but the people had tales about Sandy-this and Sandy-that, and those tales reminding Sandy of others, and the talking extended the tour to about three hours, with a little rushing here and there.

We left from Sorbie's quarters in the basement. He went up the stairs with a slight limp, favoring his left leg. A piece of shrapnel went in above the knee on one side, came out of the other carrying bone with it, during the Battle of the Somme in World War I. He was a machine-gunner in the Black Watch. He led me to the classroom on dress design. Two women were at work on a pattern. Sorbie leaned his elbows on the layout table and studied the pattern. "I wore skirts once myself" he said in a kilted accent. The girl working on the pattern giggled. "How long are skirts going to be short?". "As long as there's prosperity" said an instructor. "Skirt length seems to be tied to the economy". "Hooray for prosperity" said Sorbie, and we left, satisfied with the economy.

"Sandy finds Bourbon is better for his voice"

In the subsequent process of the tour we broke up a life class in painting, and a session on graphic design, and a silk-screen, and woodcuts group and a gathering of sculptors. The sculptors were working in a basement classroom, Sorbie's territory. He looked at the clay spattered on the floor, taking professional interest in it. He said, "We're nice down here, but we're messy". He left the sculptors to pile up work for him the next morning and headed for his broom office. 

Before going into it he went next door, to the metal-smithing shop. He introduced me to the instructor, Heikki Seppa. "Getting near the end, isn't it Sandy?" Seppa said. "Yeah; what do you think you'll get for a replacement for me, somebody first-class?". "Right, somebody first-class, maybe a Ph.D". "Sure you will, that's what you'll get, a PHD, means he'll let it Pile Hip Deep" said Sorbie. "Now me, I come in every morning in a swinging mood so I swing a mop". The instructor grinned and pointed to the clean floor, a testament to Sandy. The Scot gave him a you're-welcome bow and we went next door, into Sorbie's place, and sat at a small kitchen table. He put a hand to the bill of his cap and gave the headgear a quick lift, to air his brow, then reset the cap, low on his ears. The quick action showed that Sorbie's grey temples are topped with a red-brown wealth of hair that is one of the major works of art or nature on campus. I gawked, Sorbie politely ignored the gawking.

"I started here 40 years ago, working outside and on the main campus but, on the hill they're too stuffy" Sorbie said. "I had to go in the library for something one day and I forgot where I was and burst into song. They complained about me to Col. Boorstin. He called me in and said "You sing in libraries, do you? I've got the place for your kind," and he sent me to the Fine Arts School and I've been here ever since."

Morris Boorstin was the man in charge of university property. If it grew or could be moved, it was a matter for Boorstin. He had been an Army quartermaster sergeant and the students admired his style but decided sergeant was not sufficient rank for him. They nicknamed Boorstin "The Colonel" and in 1928 Gov.Caulfield made it official. He commissioned Boorstin as a Missouri Colonel.

In 1928 when Sorbie's  voice was just beginning to be noted for song and joke on the Campus, the Colonel's death was reported to an undertaker and to a St.Louis newspaper. The undertaker was asked to send a hearse to the house. An obituary was telephoned to the newspaper and a classified section death notice was also ordered. The hearse driver knocked on the door at Boorstin's house. The door was opened by the Colonel who denied he needed such service. The next day he called George Throop, the Chancellor. Boorstin asked Throop "Did you hear that I am dead?". "Yes," said Throop. "Where are you calling from?".

Three students were disciplined for the affair, but the students were not Boorstins first suspects. "First off, The Colonel gave me the blame for that," Sorbie said "I won't deny I could have heard it was in the works, but it wasn't my idea. Everything that happened he'd give me the blame, though, just for practice. But when I had to go to surgery in the 30's and get more shrapnel dug out of my knee, and for a while it looked like I'd lose the leg, bags of groceries came to the house and the wife and daughter needed them, you know? Well, the grocery people said they'd been told not to say who'd sent the food, but I found out it had been The Colonel. When I got back I went by his office to thank him. "What groceries?" he said. He would never admit he'd sent 'em".

Sorbie reached into a hip pocket and drew out a wallet and opened it. He took out a worn letter. Edmund Wuerpel wrote it in 1938, when he retired as Dean of Fine Arts School, and it was a thank-you note to Sorbie for his devotion to duty and morale, above and beyond the call of paycheck. Wuerpel never did know the full extent of Sorbie's devotion. The dean complained once that there seemed to be a decline in the quality of the cafeteria buttermilk. Sorbie heard him and said he suspected the dean had drawn on the wrong batch of buttermilk. He, Sorbie would draw another glass. He was gone briefly, then returned bearing another glass of buttermilk. The dean tasted and pronounced it superior buttermilk, indeed, the best ever. Sorbie did not tell the dean the improvement was a shot of Scotch. The Dean was a teetotaller. "I don't drink Scotch anymore myself," looking heavenward for a supporting witness. "No, I drink bourbon, find it better for the voice, and anyway, it's more American, and I like to express my gratitude for what America's given me".

"Sorbie's Scot's touch is evident in the pictures on his wall"

Sorbie was the last of five brothers to migrate to the United States from Scotland. The Sorbies began coming over in 1909, following the lead of fellow townsmen who  had come to work in the coal mines at O'Fallon, Illinois. William Sorbie arrived in 1923. In 1926 he lost the sight of his left eye in a mining accident. "I was ready to get out of the mines anyway," Sorbie said. "Mining was all we'd ever known in Scotland. My Father said the only way the Sorbies saw the sun was on a Sunday, on the way to church, and my memory is that we didn't often see it then. Like as not it was raining. That's what got me to leave Scotland, after mother died, the rain, and restlessness. I've not been back  since, but maybe I'll go some day now".

After coming up from the mines, Sorbie worked six months on automobile assembly line, but that made him restless too. He had joined the Caledonian Society in St.Louis, however, and that saved him. "We'd sing old songs and drink old Scotch, there were more'n a hundred of us," Sorbie said. "Judge John Calhoun was a member, and he arranged an interview for me with The Colonel. The Judge thought I'd like the work at the university better, and it turns out he was right, doesn't it?"

Willy died ten years later in February 1977 in his adopted home town of St.Louis, Missouri.

 'Sandy' certainly was some character...

Click here to see a copy of the actual newspaper article from which the above is taken.

Willy, pictured with Tim (left) and Glenn Healey at Christmas 1976, just two months before he died.


Return to 'The Family of Thomas Sorbie and Jane Burke'