Randy Sorensen on his boat, The Jane, during his time as a commercial fisherman. Photo from the Sorensen family collection
After 16 years as an employee of the Washington Island Electric Cooperative, Randy Sorensen retired on Feb. 5, 2013 – “an old-fashioned Washington Island day,” said Randy, who has been outdoors on many very sunny and very cold February days, exactly like Feb. 5 was.
“Lately it’s been getting harder and harder to snap back for the next day of work after being outside during the night on an emergency call,” said Randy. “Last August I had to have arthroscopic surgery on my knee, and in January I reinjured it on the job. And I got an additional stress fracture that will keep me on crutches until mid-March. I decided it was time to retire.”
“Every day was something new,” said Randy about his years at what he calls the REA, the traditional name for the Electric Co-op. “Before I was hired, I was serving on the REA board. After I was hired in 1997, Kermit Jorgenson trained me. And now I’ve been helping train Mike Jorgenson.”
It’s traditional at the Co-op that all employees are cross trained so that everyone can do every task and respond to every emergency. And it’s also traditional that training is carried out on the job.
“Randy loves to fight with Mother Nature,” commented Randy’s wife, Kathy. “This job was perfect for him.”
Before he started at the REA, Randy got his start fighting Mother Nature when he spent about 20 years in the commercial fishing business on the Island.
“I started with commercial fishing in 1978, when I fished with Jake Ellefson. I loved the job,” said Randy. “In the late 1970s fish were plentiful and the business was good. I bought my own boat, The Jane, in 1989, and I fished until 1999, when I sold The Jane to Jeff McDonald.”
His REA responsibility to be available and on call is part of the reason he left commercial fishing in 1999, two years after he started at the REA. He also left the Washington Island Fire Department in 1999 because, as the former manager of the REA Henry Nelson told him, “if there’s a fire, we have to be there anyway.”
Although Randy was born on Washington Island – his parents were Stuart Sorensen and Jane Jacobsen, his paternal grandmother was a Hagen, his maternal grandmother was a Koyen, Jens Jacobsen was his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, and his ancestors arrived on the Island from Denmark in 1889 – he moved with his family to the Chicago area when he was six years old.
“My father worked at Hagen’s Fish Market on Montrose and Central,” said Randy, “and when I was 13 I started working there in the summers, too.”
Before he was 13, every summer he was able to return to Washington Island, where he helped out his uncle on the family farm.
During his teens at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Ill., Randy took tech classes and learned to become a toolmaker.
“I loved getting blueprints and then figuring out how to make something,” said Randy about his days working as a toolmaker. “The place I worked in Chicago was a Defense Department subcontractor during the Vietnam War, but as the war wound down, I couldn’t do as much toolmaking, which I didn’t like.”
When he was about 30, “I wanted a change,” said Randy. “I decided to come to Washington Island for six months. Instead, I got sucked in forever!”
Randy Sorensen in 2005 worked together with a Wisconsin Public Service crew on a splice to fix an underground fault. Sorensen retired on Feb. 5, 2013, after 16 years at the Electric Co-op. Photo courtesy Washington Island Electric Co-operative
His first Island job was as a bartender at Karly’s, and after about two years on the Island he met his wife, Kathy, who had been working at Nelsen’s. Together they raised three sons – Mack, who lives in West Allis, Wis., with his wife and two children; Jimmy, who lives on the Island with his wife and daughter and works at Lamperts; and Randall, who also lives on the Island and is now helping Randy with his farm – and made a personal comeback after their house on Lake View Road burned on Feb. 8, 1991.
“When the fire started I was out at Jackson Harbor repairing fishing nets,” said Randy, “and the boys were in school and Kathy was out having lunch with her mother, who was living at Velkommen. A rack of wet clothes got off-balance and fell onto a wood stove. The fire spread across the room and eventually it burned through the ceiling and part of the roof.”
“But that darkest day turned into something light for us,” said Randy. “You know you’ve found community when something like that happens. The next day the whole Fire Department was there with their wives, boxing up things from the house that could be saved. We were able to move into temporary housing on Airport Road for the rest of the winter and spring. And in May we bought the farm where we live now from my uncle.”
“It’s the same farm where I was born and where I helped out during the summers when I was a kid.”
In retirement, Randy plans to continue raising cattle although “I can’t really expand the operation because I don’t have enough land,” and he might look for part-time work.
“I’ll probably work on fixing things up around our house and stay pretty close to Washington Island,” said Randy. “I’m not much of a traveler.”
Randy serves on the board of Velkommen, and in April he will stand for reelection to the Town Board.
“I’ve been elected twice so far,” said Randy. “I was interested in being on the Board because I believe Washington Island needs to grow, but at a slow, manageable rate. I wanted to be able to have something to do with the way the Island is transitioning into the future.”