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San Jose Mercury News

Bill Torres, Accomplished Teacher, Learner

By Matthai Chakko Kuruvila

November 17, 2003
Copyright ©2003
San Jose Mercury News. All rights reserved.

William ``Bill'' Sotomayor Torres came to Miami from Puerto Rico more than 54 years ago without a dime in his pocket or a word of English in his mouth. A half-century later, he had taught generations of San Jose children how to speak Spanish, German and French.

It would become a recurrent pattern in the life of Mr. Torres, who died Tuesday at age 76: starting from scratch, learning how to do something new and then teaching others to do the same.

``He learned to ski and made us all learn, too,'' said Susan Clayton, 39, one of his six children. ``He built his own swimming pool. He redesigned bathrooms. He was a real do-it-yourself kind of guy.''

Mr. Torres came to the United States hoping to get an education. But lacking English skills and money, he joined the Army and was sent to fight in Korea.

When he returned, the GI Bill paid for his education at San Jose State University.

After graduating, Mr. Torres started a dry-cleaning business. It failed, sending him into debt, but he saw it as an opportunity.

He worked two jobs to put his wife, Julie, through school at San Jose State, and then he returned for his master's degree. They both became teachers. Mr. Torres would teach for 29 years, mostly at John Muir and Steinbeck junior high schools and Gunderson High School.

``When the dry-cleaning business fell apart, he used it as a positive experience,'' Clayton said. ``My dad had a very youthful exuberance that sustained him. . . . For my dad, life was always about living and loving and growing.''

When he retired from San Jose Unified School District in 1988, Mr. Torres and his wife moved to Auburn. Using the knowledge he had acquired from Time Life how-to books, Mr. Torres built a home almost entirely with his own hands.

``The only thing that he had done by somebody else was the foundation,'' said Julie Torres, his third wife. ``After he saw them pour it, he said, `I could have done that myself.' ''

Mr. Torres began suffering the symptoms of a rapidly degenerating brain disease -- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- at the end of August. Even so, he would finish constructing a patio cover on his Rancho Cordova home several days later.

``It was a very rapid and shocking thing for us all,'' said Clayton, his daughter, who had planned a series of projects for her father, thinking, ``My dad can do that. My dad can do this.

``It's just really amazing and stunning that he's gone.''

By the time he died, Mr. Torres could no longer speak. He held his wife's hands and gazed into her eyes.

``He was showing her his love in the only way that he could,'' said Clayton.

``It was an incredibly horrible twist of fate that a man who spoke so eloquently could speak only with his eyes,'' said Julie Torres, his wife of 42 years. ``But he was still eloquent with his eyes.

``What can I say? He never let anything get him down. If something didn't work, he'd say, OK, let's try something else. He was just eager for life.''

William ``Bill'' Sotomayor Torres Born: July 2, 1927, in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Died: Nov. 11, 2003, in Rancho Cordova.

Survived by: Wife, Julie Torres of Rancho Cordova; children, Esther Carmen Torres of San Francisco, Ernest Torres of Monterey, Michael Torres of Hollister, Cyndi Torres of Hollister, James Torres of San Diego and Susan Clayton of Fremont; and 12 grandchildren.

Services: Have been held.

Memorial: The family requests that donations be made to the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, C/O CJD Research, 350 Parnassus Ave., Suite 706, San Francisco, Calif. 94117.

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