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Strong work ethic helped make Billy York into a master craftsman

When asked, Billy York says he grew up in Pittsboro, even though he was already more than half grown by the time his mother moved him there. It might be more accurate to say that it was where he quit being a boy.

Billy York looks over plans for renovations to Wilson Hall.
Billy York started out managing a tiny storeroom for the zoology department in Wilson Hall 34 years ago. His current duties include managing the maintenance and renovation of Wilson and two other buildings that constitute more than 200,000 square feet and $20 million worth of equipment. Here, York reviews the latest renovation plans for Wilson Hall.


“My father got killed in a motorcycle accident when I was 9 or 10 years old and my mother moved back to Pittsboro with her family a couple of years after that,” York said. It was about the time he was to start seventh grade.

If there was going to be a man in the house, he knew he would have to take on the job. “I went to work fulltime when I was 13 years old, if that ought to tell you anything,” he said.

He worked at the service station and used car lot that his uncle owned in town, from the end of the school day until 11 o’clock at night. About the time he graduated from high school, his uncle bought a second gas station and hired York to run it until he entered the Air Force for a four-year stint.

York spent three years in England working in base supply. When he got home in 1960, he bought part of the tire recapping business his uncle had started.

He might have ended up staying there. The money was good and there was no one to answer to but himself. But Congress “began passing all these fancy rules,” York said, and a government man came by with news they would have to buy a piece of million-dollar equipment to stay in business. The family couldn’t afford it.

So York spent nearly all of his time on the road, buying used tires and hauling them back from New York to sell around the Carolinas. “I was buying what they took off at a rate of a thousand tires every week,” York said.

He pictured spending the rest of his life on the road, hauling tires up and down the East Coast. Then Velna came along. Velna was the woman he married in 1972 who told him in short order that his time on the road made her feel more like a widow than a wife.

“She really wanted me to stay at home a little more,” York said. “I was leaving Sunday and not getting back home until late Wednesday or sometimes Thursday.”

Getting off the road
In fall 1974 she talked him into coming to Carolina, where she worked, to apply for a job as the warehouse manager for the zoology department in Wilson Hall that paid less money than he was already making.

“I was overqualified, but that is basically how I got my foot in the door,” York said. As bad as the money was, he discovered that the amount of work was worse. There was so little of it for him to do that it just about drove him crazy.

“It was just a little stockroom in the basement with no more than $500 worth of stuff in it and I really didn’t have enough work,” York said. “I got bored so I was out running around the building looking for things to do just to keep myself busy. I’m still that way. If I thought I wasn’t, I would have gone home a long time ago.”

That was 34 years ago, and just about everything has changed inside Wilson Hall except Billy York.

His job title is “laboratory operations manger,” but even the nine colleagues who nominated him for a 2008 C. Knox Massey Award know that the title hardly captures all that this man does.

Integral to the department
Steven Matson, chair of the biology department, said York had become an integral and critically important part of the department and his three decades of service stood as testament to his commitment.

After the zoology and botany departments merged into the biology department in the early 1980s, York took on the responsibility of maintaining both Wilson Hall and Coker Hall next door. As the biology department hired new professors to engage in cellular and molecular biology research, each new hire required an old laboratory to be renovated for its new purpose, Matson said.

“Billy York was, and continues to be, the person in charge of completely redesigning and planning for the renovation of each and every one of these high-tech laboratories,” Matson said.

Moreover, Maston said, “his ability to work with faculty, staff, students and various units on campus to move a project along is without compare.”

No one is indispensable, but don’t tell that to York’s colleagues.

A few years ago, when the word leaked out that he was starting to think about retiring, it put the department into a near panic. “They wanted to give me a good-size raise if I would stay and I said, ‘OK, I’ll stay one more year.’”

The next year, he got another call from the chair: “Just what will it take for you to stay?”

In an age of specialization, York carved out his niche by knowing a little bit about everything – from plumbing to electrical work to painting – and being willing to do it.

“I sort of halfway attribute that Massey award to that attitude,” York said. “I’m not one of those people who say, ‘Oh, no, that’s not my job.’ I don’t care what I’m asked to do. At one time, when I wrote my job description, the last paragraph that I put in was, ‘Any other duties for the benefit of the biology department.’ That means they could ask me to do anything they wanted to.”

Lifelong lessons
And every day, with every person he meets, York applies what he believes is the most important lesson he learned as a boy pumping gas at his uncle’s gas station in Pittsboro – what he calls “the value of just being polite to people.”

“I started out early working with the public and I learned very quickly, if you learned to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘Yes, ma’am,’ you get can get along a whole lot better. I still do that today even with these young kids around here.”

It isn’t a matter of age, York said. If you give people respect it will be returned to you in kind.

He is 71 now, but his age belies an energy that keeps him moving as fast as people half his age. But he is not yet ready for retirement, or the recliner.

When that day inevitably comes, hanging on York’s wall will be the Massey award. And right under it will hang the two-page nominating letter that he had matted and framed.

“Just to know that your peers appreciate you enough to even turn your name in for consideration is worth a great deal to me.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 10, 2008

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