I just watched a delightful and inspiring story on our local Iowa Public TV station about a man named Bill Sackter. He was born in Minnesota in 1913 to Russian parents of Jewish decent. His father died in 1920 from the Spanish flu. Bill had difficulty learning in school and after he took a required intelligence test, they labeled him subnormal. The State of Minnesota decided he was a “burden to society” and placed him in a state school for the feeble minded. He lived there for 44 years. He never saw his family again. Then with the changes in mental health treatment, he was released from the state institution and lived in a half-way house and worked odd jobs. He was never taught how to read, write, do math or use a telephone. He played the harmonica and loved to play wherever he went. He loved children, enjoyed playing Santa Claus, loved God and he loved people.
In 1964 he worked as a handy man at a country club and it was there that he met Bev and Barry Morrow. Bev worked there as a cocktail waitress and Barry was a filmmaker and would come to pick his wife up. They got acquainted and Barry eventually became Bill’s guardian. Barry took a job at the University of Iowa and his family picked up and moved to Iowa City. Bill stayed behind in Minnesota, but was not doing well without Barry and Bev. He was found unconscious on the side of the road one day with an ulcerated leg that was badly infected and it was thought that he would have to have it amputated. The state ended up calling Barry in Iowa City and Barry made the trip to see Bill and he decided to bring Bill back with him to Iowa to live near them and find him a job at the college. After a custodian job did not work out at the school, Bill became the owner of Wild Bill’s Coffee shop on campus.
Bill Sackter was named Handicapped Iowan of the Year in 1976 and in 1979 President Jimmy Carter gave him special recognition as well. A book about his life was written by Thomas Walz called, “The Unlikely Celebrity: Bill Sackter’s Triumph Over Disability.” A movie called “Bill” was created in 1981 and Mickey Rooney played Bill in this movie, Dennis Quaid played Barry Morrow and it won an Emmy Award and Golden Globe. A sequel was made and released in 1983 called “Bill: On His Own.” A feature length documentary was completed in 2008 created by film-maker Lane Wyrick called, “A Friend Indeed, The Bill Sackter Story.” This is the program on IPTV I just watched. It uses photos and film taken by Barry Morrow over the years as far back as 1972. All of these show how others helped Bill develop as an individual and how he became an important figure in many people’s lives in the city of Iowa City and across America. It also shed light and helped change the perception of those with disabilities.
Bill died in 1983 on June 16 in his sleep. The flags were flown at half staff and a large group of people turned out for his funeral. Bill’s funeral was held in the local Jewish synagogue, but Bill also went to the Baptist Church and the Catholic church and on his funeral day the local Baptist minister and 3 nuns were present at his funeral as well. The Morrow children considered him like a grandpa and the whole Morrow family lost a dear friend.
Here is a link to see the trailer to the documentary made by Lane Wyrick shown on IPTV: Trailer for A Friend Indeed documentary…
Here is a link to the coffee shop Bill owned and ran with pictures of Bill towards the bottom of the page:
Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop – University of Iowa
If you get a chance to watch this documentary – it was so inspiring, uplifting and encouraging! It is worth an hour of your time!