By Pat McKnight  

If Robert Storey had a motto, it just might be “if you’re handy, you’ll always have a project or two to work on.” The La Crosse resident has just completed a project rebuilding a sport utility vehicle he stripped down to the frame. 

“I just needed a ‘mountain’ to climb,” said Storey. “I need to do something worthwhile.”

With that project essentially completed, Storey is looking for his next undertaking. While he’s been working on a more-than-full-size statue of Batman and has created busts of the past and current United States presidents, the 75-year-old is open to a new venture.

Storey learned sculpting skills from Galesville metal sculptor Elmer Petersen. The two met when Storey was the maintenance supervisor at Northern Engraving and Petersen was working for the company as an artist. 

When Petersen needed certain supplies for a project, he approached Storey and asked whether the maintenance supervisor would be able to acquire the materials. After fulfilling Petersen’s request, Storey became Petersen’s go-to guy and helper in other sculpture projects.

“He (Petersen) asked me if I could weld,” said Storey. “Then, when he came to me about another project, I asked him if he could weld.”

Storey helped Petersen with crafting sculptures such as the George Poage monument now standing in George Poage Park in La Crosse, as well as the George Gale statue mounted at the entrance to Galesville.

While Storey is adept at manual skills, he’s also honed his storytelling skills gleaned from work and life experiences. 

Storey started his work adventures with the U.S. Armed Forces, completing enlistments with the Army, Navy and Coast Guard. “I have four honorable discharges,” said Storey.

As a “Reserve Coastie,” Storey was stationed in La Crosse. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains a base in La Crosse where personnel inspect barges and other watercraft, as well as respond to environmental and national security matters.

More than once, Storey was sent to inspect barges on the Mississippi, earning a reputation as a no-nonsense guardian of the river.

“The captain called me and told me to check out a barge that had a sheen of oil floating behind it,” said Storey. “I looked into it and separated the boat and condemned it. I was also told to inspect the Prairie Island Nuclear Plant (Red Wing) because they had an oil leak.” 

Along with inspecting barges as they were unloading, Storey would hop on barges and inspect them as they were underway, grabbing the ride at one port, sailing to the next and then getting on board another going in the opposite direction to get back to where he started.

From his employment with Northern Engraving, Storey was able to add to his repertoire of stories through his assignments to plants in Mexico and Wales.

The automotive and appliance nameplate and trim manufacturer sent Storey south of the border and to the overseas plant to assist with machinery maintenance and upgrades. During his time at those plants, Storey got to know about the countries and the workers.

“I found the Mexican people very nice, hard workers and family-oriented,” said Storey. “One of the workers moved to West Salem to train and work at the Sparta plant. He and his family came to our home to visit. They eventually moved back near the border to be closer to their families.”

When Storey decided to retire, he didn’t have much time to relax. His former employer asked him to return and travel to the Welsh plant where he trained personnel in maintaining printing machines.

“I always wanted to go to Wales,” said Storey. “I worked for another year and a half.”

Now fully retired, Storey won’t likely be satisfied with life unless he has something to build, repair or maintain. He’ll also be sharing the stories of his past experiences with anyone who’s willing to learn about other cultures and the people he’s met during his three-quarter century of adventures.