Business

‘Some people play golf or tennis. I do stone walls’

WESTWOOD — Wind gusts whistle through the tree branches as Bill Doherty bends and lifts heavy rocks scattered on the ground and gently sets them onto the wall alongside Xaverian Brothers High School.

It’s the kind of unseasonably chilly May morning when most people would rather stay indoors and grumble about the tardiness of spring. Doherty’s not one to complain.

“Today’s a good day to work,” he says.. “Nothing worse than a hot day.”

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While many his age spend their days watching television in their BarcaLoungers, the 84-year-old Doherty is outside in all weather, repairing crumbled stone walls across Eastern Massachusetts. In winter, he brushes the snow off the stones and presses forward with the job.

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Retirement holds no appeal. He found his vocation late in life, and it gives so much satisfaction that he sometimes rebuilds, gratis, walls he’s worked on before.

“Some people play golf or tennis,” Doherty says. “I do stone walls.”

He works about four hours most mornings, including weekends and some holidays. Doherty said he celebrated his 84th birthday last Oct. 20 by lifting a stone weighing more than 200 pounds — with no help and no tools. He placed it on a gap in a wall in Milton, roughly four feet off the ground. But it looked crooked, so he picked it up again and moved it to a better spot.

Doherty is a solidly built man with a ruddy complexion, a shock of white hair, and a mustache to match. Outside the Catholic high school here, he stepped out of his red Chevy Malibu wearing blue jeans, a light jacket, and a pair of thin work gloves. He approached a wall — where he would spend the next couple of hours working — with a medical boot on his left foot.

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While Doherty gets the usual bumps and bruises and black-and-blue marks of someone working with his hands, his foot injury didn’t come at a job site. In January, he fractured his ankle stumbling on an icy step outside his house while retrieving the newspaper.

At the Veterans Administration Hospital in Jamaica Plain, the X-rays revealed a chip on one side of the ankle and a bone crack on the other. The medical staff warned him to lay off the stone work until his ankle healed, he said. But the job offers kept coming in — he advertises in direct mailers sent to Boston area homes — so he kept working.

“That bum foot’s just about healed,” he said. “They wanted to operate but I said no. . .  . I think it’s going to be all right.”

Bill Doherty, 84, hauls hefty rocks to build or restore walls.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Bill Doherty, 84, hauls hefty rocks to build or restore walls.

Doherty has a few motivations for spurning retirement to gather stones. He knows he’d be bored spending all day at home. It bothers him to drive around and see tumbled-down walls. But mostly he likes the work and laments that few people know how to stack stones correctly.

Surveying the gaps in the wall along the high school, Doherty motioned to the campus. “The maintenance guys, they can fix anything on the premises,” he said. “But no one knows how to put the stones up. . .  . This is a fancy school with a great sports program. When people come to football games, I want them to see a nice wall.”

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Doherty’s own background wasn’t fancy. One of five children, he grew up in South Boston and served stateside in the Air Force during the Korean War. He started working at age 9, shining shoes, delivering newspapers, and hauling ice up the stairs of three-deckers. In his adult years, he worked on construction sites, in a shipyard, and for a hotel chain. He retired at 62 as a purchasing agent for Somerville manufacturer James A. Kiley Co.

But Doherty never worked on stone walls until he was 72. It started when he was visiting a second cousin, Eddie McCormack, in Norfolk. When McCormack and his wife, Elizabeth, talked about hiring a mason to fix a crumbling wall on their property, Doherty said he was confident he could rebuild it himself.

“I just knew right off I could do it,” Doherty said. “My career was born.”

Doherty has an instinctive feel for how stones fit together. It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle, finding the flat side of the stones and resting one on another. He’ll sometimes lug an especially bulky stone on a two-wheeler from one end of a wall to the perfect spot on the other end. “Every space has a definite shape,“ he said. “You have to have an eye.”

He has built walls from scratch, but Doherty prefers to rebuild existing walls, erasing some of the imperfections seen along the roadside. Some walls were made of stones purchased commercially or excavated from the ground during construction projects. But many are old New England stone walls, put up in the 1700s and 1800s to demarcate farms and pastures. They were built without mortar, relying on gravity and the natural shape of the stones.

Doherty started working at age 9, and for the most part he hasn’t stopped since.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Doherty started working at age 9, and for the most part he hasn’t stopped since.

Doherty has no use for mortar, either, striving for the authentic look of the old walls. He forgoes mixers, trowels, and power tools but keeps a long construction bar in the trunk of his car to help pry stones from the ground and move them into better positions. His son Michael lends a hand on weekends to help move boulders. (Doherty has two sons. His wife, Ann Joan, died of cancer about 25 years ago.)

Ann Marie Sullivan, 78, his partner for the past two decades, understands Doherty’s passion for walls. “Amen to that because then I have the home to do what I want to do,” said Sullivan, 78, who is often gardening outside their Westwood home when Doherty’s on the job. “I get my space. . .  . He comes home after his hard work with a smile, and I ask about his day.”

Doherty’s clients appreciate his old school approach. Management consultant Rick Hooker has hired Doherty to build or restore three walls on property, once farmland, that Hooker owns in Medfield. Hooker said Doherty maintains the old-fashioned look of the walls and charges half as much as masons who build walls with straight edges and mortar.

“To do the work he’s doing at 84 is inspiring,” Hooker said. “He shows up exactly when he says he’ll show up. And the job costs just what he says it’s going to cost.”

Doherty said Xaverian paid him at first for rebuilding the stone wall along its campus. Now he returns about once a year to replace stones that were hit by cars, knocked down by students, or had succumbed to the ravages of frost. He knows the wall will be damaged again. “It could last six months [or] a couple of hours,” he said.

No one asked him to fix the wall again this spring; this is what lawyers call pro bono work, undertaken without charge. Doherty said it’s possible his wall eventually will be replaced by a modern cement wall.

If that happens, he said, so be it.

“At least this wall will be neat until they rip it down.”

“He comes home after his hard work with a smile,” said Ann Marie Sullivan, Doherty’s longtime partner.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
“He comes home after his hard work with a smile,” said Ann Marie Sullivan, Doherty’s longtime partner.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.