The Power of an Endowment

Sobey Okuyama, doctor of veterinary medicine, wore a child’s size eight shoe and a boy’s size 14 overalls. He stood about five feet tall. Friends and co-workers at the Brook Hill Farms, Inc. in Genesee, Wisconsin, where Okuyama was herd veterinarian, watched with amusement as his horn-rimmed glasses barely cleared the steering wheel of his big Oldsmobile. When he made rounds among his beloved dairy cows, especially the Guernseys, he could almost walk under them. Even though he died in 1953, Okuyama continues to make a huge impact at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Doc Sobey,” as he was called, never married and had no children but he thought about future generations and wanted his money to go where it would do the most good. His wishes have been fulfilled, perhaps beyond his imagination. For more than 50 years, his generosity has helped advance animal science. It has benefited research, including the study of lactic acid bacteria and the control of bovine leukosis, as well as staff retention and facilities. More important, his gift will continue to support the work that was his life thanks to the power of an endowment.

Since 1953, Okuyama’s initial bequest of $60,000* “for research in the field of dairying and veterinary science” as stated in his will, has increased tenfold to a current market value of $600,000. At the same time, nearly $300,000, or five times the original amount, has been used by the School. The combined market value and income created through investment growth total more than $1 million. Okuyama’s wish to do the most good will continue for many decades to come.

Sobey Okuyama was born in Japan in 1889. At age 19, he arrived in California for high school but discovered his true home in Wisconsin when he joined a Japanese friend at Brook Hill Farm. He financed his studies at Cornell University and The Ohio State University by working at the farm and returned there full time after earning his advanced degrees.

Doc loved being among the 500 cows but he also had an agile mind and curious intellect. He and a UW-Madison professor pioneered the use of artificial insemination to improve dairy herds. Brucellosis, called undulant fever in humans, is a highly contagious disease transmitted from animals to people via raw meat. In the 1930s, Doc worked with UW-Madison researchers to develop a vaccine for this disease based on original work he did years earlier. He was among the first to develop acidophilus, a bacteria often added to milk. In his tiny (naturally) laboratory on the farm, he conducted dozens of bacteriology experiments. One week before his death, Doc met with University researchers on a potential calf experiment for Brook Hill.

Doc was a red, white and blue American and would not hesitate to place a small bet on a football game, one of his passions. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was devastated. Some said it broke his heart. And there were a few who turned against him. At first, he withdrew socially but nearly every veterinarian and many friends within a hundred miles let Doc know they trusted and cared about him.

On a warm summer evening, Doc Sobey died as people often saw him in life: a small, solitary figure sitting on his couch reading. That’s what a giant looks like.

Dr. Okuyama’s bequest was to the Department of Animal Health and Biomedical Sciences that was later reorganized into the current School of Veterinary Medicine.