Obituary: Walter Subby, humble physician, World War II veteran

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2014 - 7:04 PM

Dr. Walter Subby never sought the limelight during his many years as a Twin Cities pathologist, and his son Robert is pretty sure he wouldn’t welcome attention now. But Subby, who died Feb. 6 at age 99 of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, led a remarkable life that included caring for prisoners from Nazi death camps and serving as a roving county coroner in Minnesota.

Subby’s father, Oscar, was a colorful Danish immigrant who became a horse rancher, sulky racer, law officer and businessman in Albert Lea. He was a policeman in 1900, when he was shot in a notorious gun battle that claimed the life of the gunman and the city’s police chief, according to the Albert Lea Tribune. Oscar promised his dying boss that he’d take care of his family, and married his widow, Lillian.

Walter, born May 27, 1914, got his medical degree at the University of Minnesota. He enlisted in the Army as World War II broke out and was assigned to the 127th Evacuation Hospital. He served in the Pacific at Guadalcanal and New Guinea, then followed Gen. George Patton’s troops as they made their lightning drive into Germany to end the war.

Subby’s unit was assigned to care for the prisoners liberated from the Dachau death camp in 1945. He recounted the experience in a short film produced in the 1980s. Subby recalled seeing perhaps 500 dead bodies “stacked like cordwood” and hundreds more dumped in an open trench. The surviving prisoners were so emaciated that he couldn’t fathom how they could move.

“It was impossible for me to comprehend how another human being could treat people the way they did,” Subby said of the Nazis. “The anger was difficult to control, really.”

Subby stumbled across a large cache of weapons in a hotel and angrily reminded a captive German officer that everyone had been ordered to turn over any military equipment. The next day, he said, he found a giant pile of rifles, swords, binoculars and other spoils in the street. Amid the heap was a camera, which he used to document the carnage.

“I thought … that I ought to have a visual record of what we saw there,” Subby said. “The disbelief in my mind had to be transmitted to people at home to make them realize what brutality had existed.”

When he returned to the United States, Subby fell in love with a young widow with a son. Walter and Margaret Subby were married 56 years, until her death in 2002. They had four more children: Mary Pam Cardwell, of Champlin, Robert Subby, of Bloomington, Cynthia Bright, of Avon, Colo., and Candace Gonzales, of Vancouver, Wash.

The family moved into a house on Lake Minnetonka and in 1950, Dr. Subby joined St. Mary’s Hospital as a pathologist, remaining there until his retirement in 1986. He and his colleagues, the late Drs. Allen S. Judd and Leonard V. Crowley, also served as roving coroners for rural counties.

Robert Subby remembers his dad as “a gentle man,” chock full of axiomatic expressions like, “There’s no news in the truth and no truth in the news.” He said his dad was conservative and believed in a college education and hard, steady work.

Bright described him as a classic Minnesotan who loved the outdoors, especially hunting and water skiing. Cardwell cared for her father as dementia set in. She moved him into the Colonial Acres nursing home in Golden Valley in 2006 after he suffered two bad falls at home.

“He was a wonderful dad,” she said. “I don’t think I met a single human being who didn’t like him.”

Subby is survived by daughters Cardwell, Bright and Gonzales; son Robert Subby; eight grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

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