bill + settlement house


Bill’s legacy lives on in coffeeshop

Bill Sackter has been gone for more than 20 years now. He died in 1983. But his spirit lives on here at Wild Bill’s Coffeeshop in Iowa City, Iowa. Look around and you can see so many memories from the days when Bill was behind the counter.

The “Bill story” began early in the 20th century in Minneapolis. Bill was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who ran a small grocery store in a neighborhood just north of downtown Minneapolis.

By the time Bill started school it was clear his mental development was not progressing like the other children. He had the mind of someone who was about five or six. Bill later called this “cracked-mindedness.”

Life was never easy for the Sackter family. But it became even harder after Bill’s dad died.

Because of Bill’s limited development, it was recommended that he be put into an institution. So for nearly 50 years, Bill lived at a state mental hospital in Minnesota.

Bill was released in the 1960s, one of hundreds of people who were returned to
communities around Minnesota. Bill was sent back to Minneapolis and lived in a group home.

A few years later, Bill met Barry Morrow, a college student at the University of Minnesota and community worker at Margaret Barry House, a settlement house in Minneapolis. Barry and his wife, Bev, actually lived at the settlement.

Bev worked in the restaurant at a country club, also in Minneapolis. Bill worked there, too.

Barry would come to pick up Bev from work and would see Bill in the front
window. They eventually met at a party for all of the country club employees.

A friendship blossomed and Bill became a part of Barry and Bev’s family.

During this same time Barry was finishing up some classes at the University of Minnesota. One of his teachers was Tom Walz, who headed up something called the Living Learning Center.

(There are many stories about Tom Walz at Minnesota; perhaps as many as there are at the University of Iowa. Many of those stories are true. But that’s a topic for another column.)

Tom Walz left Minnesota and came to the University of Iowa to head the School of Social Work. He recruited Barry to come along.

Barry and Bev came to Iowa 30 years ago; Bill followed shortly after. At some point, they all decided Bill should have a job in Iowa City.

That led to the coffeeshop inside the School of Social Work — the one which is still here today.

It also led to a movie called, simply, “Bill.” It was Barry’s first movie and
eloquently tells the story of Bill Sackter’s life up to the opening of the
coffeeshop. A second movie, “Bill On His Own,” followed two years later in
1983. It focuses more on Bill’s life in the coffeeshop. Mickey Rooney played
the part of Bill in both movies.

There is a book about Bill, too. Called “The Unlikely Celebrity,” it was written by Tom Walz and published in 1999.

Bill’s story has also been told as part of theater productions in Minneapolis and in Iowa City. The Minneapolis show was at the Capri Theatre; the Iowa show at Bill’s coffeeshop.

Barry today lives in Santa Barbara and continues work as a screenwriter. His
best-known film is “Rainman,” which is the reason for the poster of that movie
at the coffeeshop door.

Tom Walz has retired from the UI School of Social Work, but has started a new career as director of Uptown Bill’s, a crosstown cousin of the original Bill’s Coffeeshop. Now three years old, this venture includes not only a coffeeshop but a bookstore, an antique shop and other businesses.

Continuing in the spirit of Bill Sackter, both original Bill’s and Uptown Bill’s employ individuals with disabilities from the community. Both Bill’s also offer volunteer opportunities for students and others interested in strengthening their “abilities awareness.”

That’s the “Bill story” up to now. There’s sure to be a lot more to come.

posted by Tom Gilsenan @ 4:08 PM


  • At 5:23 PM, February 24, 2006, Anonymous Erica Hardy said…
    Bill’s legacy lives on in the coffeeshop is a neat story. I have never heard of something so amazing. Bill sounded like an amazing guy who looked at the world from a different perpective. Bill had limited development, I wonder how he survived in an mental hospital. I have heard if you are in a state mental hospital that you most likely would not get better, but sometimes even get worse. Most patients who are in there arelifers. Bill was able to keep a good relationship with Barry and Bev’s family. Thank you for sharing this remarkable story. These stories about “Abilities Awareness” are enjoyable to read and to share with other people. This makes people look at their life and realize that they really don’t have it that bad.
  • At 8:31 PM, February 24, 2006, Blogger Tom Gilsenan said…
    The original idea of state hospitals was to teach life skills and then return individuals to the community. We’ll talk more about that original vision in our class. We’ll find out about Dorothea Dix, who was a pioneer in this field.
    Unfortunately, most people who ended up in those big hospitals never left. We’ll talk about why that happened, too.
    You are right, IQ tests of those sent to state hospitals generally went down the longer they stayed. That has actually documented in the case of Bill.
  • At 1:01 PM, March 22, 2006, Anonymous becky heintzman said…
    the book started off on a slow note in my perspective. once i got into it i liked the story. he was a strong man and i thought it was neat how even though he had a disability he stood up and took care of many others. he would often put others before himself, he would eat cold food just so he could make sure the others got to eat. he took better care of others than the workers did. he didn’t seem to get down on himself or other things. i don’t think i would have ever survived living in a place like that. i also thought it was great how people would step up and care for him and didn’t act like it was a burdon to them.
  • At 9:28 AM, March 24, 2006, Blogger Tom Gilsenan said…
    I wonder if Bill’s “helping role” — taking care of others — is one of the reasons he stayed so long at Faribault state hospital. He played such a valuable role in humanzing the institution.
  • At 11:21 PM, March 28, 2006, Blogger Reyanne Nicole said…
    While reading the Unlikely Celebrity it was hard for me to imagine what Bill went through all of those years. I have searched different websites about the Faribault Hospital and not to my surprise there was not much negative to be said about it. I find it so interesting that sometimes the real truth is hard to find unless you read a story like Bill’s. Another good example of what went on in state hospitals is Christmas in Purgatory. I have seen the horrific pictures that were taken in these institutions and could not fathom ever having to have lived there.

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About Kate Kresse

I love to write, I love to talk, I love to uplift people when I can. I am a woman in love with life. I am a wife, mom, tutor, writer, and I am a perennial optimist. (OK not every single minute but you get the point! :-)
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