A Friend Indeed-The Bill Sackter Story (FULL Documentary)


Jack Doepke and Bill Sackter sing ‘Oh Lutefisk’, 1970s

Jack: I sing first, then you repeat after me.
Bill: Oh, you sing it! Yeah, okay.(Jack then sings each line, repeated by Bill)O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma,
O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma.
You smell so strong, you look like glue,
You taste just like an overshoe,
But lutefisk, come Saturday,
I think I’ll eat you anyway.O Lutefisk, O lutefisk, I put you by the doorway.
I wanted you to ripen up just like they do in Norway.
A dog came by and sprinkled you.
I hit them with an Army shoe.
O lutefisk, now I suppose
I’ll eat you as I hold my nose.O Lutefisk, O lutefisk, how well I do remember.
On Christmas Eve how we would get our big treat of December.
It wasn’t turkey or fried ham.
It wasn’t even pickled Spam.
My mother knew there was no risk
In serving buttered lutefisk.O Lutefisk, O lutefisk, now everyone discovers
That lutefisk and lefse make Norwegians better lovers.
Now all the world can have a ball.
You’re better than that Geritol.
O lutefisk, with fattigmann
You make me feel like Superman.


Bill Sackter playing his harmonica, Minneapolis, 1970s


Barry Morrow’s eulogy for Bill Sackter, June 19, 1983 in Iowa City

Barry Morrow:
Dear friends, when the flags over Iowa City flew at half staff this week, it wasn’t for a president, or a statesman, or a fallen soldier. It was for a man who made coffee. If anyone deserves such a tribute, it was Bill Sackter. For no one better understood the true meaning of what we all hold sacred, life and our liberty, and especially our pursuit of happiness. For Bill life began on April 13th, 1913. At the age of seven he was placed in an institution for the mentally retarded and there he stayed for 44 years, finally gaining his liberty at the age of 51. Thus began his pursuit of happiness, which became his lifetime pursuit.It led him finally to Iowa City, Iowa, to the university, a home and a job, that sometimes led him far beyond. Bill was, in the time of his day, known as a simple-minded man, but he was not a simple man. He was a single-minded man, is what he was, with a single-minded dream. And that was to bring as much joy to everyone he met as he could do. Nothing ever shook his optimism. Bill was born sunny side up. But Bill was not a simple man in so many ways and each of us in this room knew a different facet.Well, I guess the only way we can really talk about Bill is through our stories. And there is a hundred stories for every face in this room, and downstairs, and outside. I have my favorite dozen, but I would like to share just two. The first was the night I met Bill, some 12 years ago. He was at a staff party and I walked in the room and I saw this man sitting alone at a table. He had a wig on and a glass of water, and he was far off by himself in the corner. We exchanged some conversation and I learned in that one sitting Bill’s philosophy of life, that is: a man has to do what a man has to do, and he was going to do his best.As I got closer, I saw Bill’s eyes, and in a moment of pride and defiance, he turned and he marched straight up to the front of the bandstand, took this microphone and cranked it up, or was it down, and suddenly I saw a flash of silver and the room was filled with real music. Bill Sackter was playing his harmonica and the band stopped and the people watched. And then one person picked up the rhythm. And within a few minutes, there was a real dance. And even the band fell into place behind him. The oboe player trying to keep up with his polka. And then when he was done to round of applause and shouts for more and encore, I noticed he spotted me at the back, this kid he had just met for the first time. And I guess I knew just right then that he had chosen me and that he was showing me that he could do something. He might have a dumb looking wig and he might indeed be crack minded by the old standards, but he could play his harmonica and he wanted me to know it.My other story, and that was a personal one, and we all have such personal stories. But that was just the first. There are really so many better ones and I wish we could all, well, later we will have time to share some of these at the reception. But Bill touched strangers too. And there is a story I want to tell about how Bill’s presence and his spirit could go 3,000 miles and touch a total stranger and change a person’s life.Three nights after the airing of the movie Bill, Bill had come out to spend the time with us. And late one night the phone rang and the phone had been ringing for a long time but this was awfully late, and I was kind of angry that someone would want to call so late. And I picked it up and there was a man on the other end and he had a very thick southern accent. And he said, “Mr. Morrow, you don’t know me, but I’m here in North Carolina and I got a problem. You see, my son Brian, who’s eight years old, saw this movie called Bill. And then at the end of the movie Bill, he saw the real Bill and he’s got these two pictures of Mickey Rooney and the real Bill in his mind. And they’re bouncing back and forth and he’s just, well, he’s just worried. He knows Mickey Rooney’s okay, but he wonders if the real Bill is going to be happy, is he going to make it. And he’d not slept for three nights, Brian.”And he said, “Is there any way, I’ve been trying to call, track down this guy named Bill,” he didn’t even know his last name. And he said, “Is there any way that you could put in a call to him and he could perhaps call my boy? Have him call collect and just for a few minutes? I know he’s a busy man.” I said, “Well, he’s not that busy. He’s sitting right in the other room.” So I said, “Bill, come in here. There’s a little boy named Brian. He wants to talk to you.” So I handed the phone to Bill, and I ran down the hall and I got on another phone. And Brian’s dad, I heard another click on another phone at his house. And there were two unauthorized eavesdroppers but I didn’t want to miss it.And Bill said, “What’s this all about, you not being happy? You get that right out of your head. I’m just as happy as a lard.” And he went on to tell the boy that he’d had a rough life and he just as soon forget it. And he had a good life now, and every day was a good day. And by the way, did this kid like baseball? And so very not so subtly, the conversation switched from Bill and his problems to this little boy. And within a minute, this little boy was being told by this total stranger that he must be the best baseball player the world had ever seen. And Bill sure did miss him. And Brian said, “But Billy, you don’t even know me yet.” And, “Oh, you’d be surprised. You’d be surprised.”

Well, the next day or that evening Brian went to sleep, because that night the father called again and he said, “I just want you to know that Brian is sleeping and he’s just totally satisfied.” He said, “But now I can’t get to sleep.” He said, “The reason was,” he said, “I thought I had a regular little boy.” He said, “If he steps on angleworms, he doesn’t cry. He sees sad movies, he doesn’t cry. He’s a sensitive boy, I know, but nothing special.” He said, “Why did he pick this man so far away to care about so much?” And I said, “You’d have to know Bill. You’d have to know how big a magnet Bill’s heart can be to children.”

Well, the next, that day, Bill also went out and bought Brian a harmonica and he sent it to them. And they’ve been pen pals and they’ve talked on the phone, exchanged birthday presents. And they’ve never met, but they’ve been good buddies. And when we learned of Bill’s death, there were many people to call. And in the middle of it all, I remember Brian, and I didn’t want Brian to hear it on the radio. So, I called up and I talked to his dad and I said, “Who should talk to Brian? Who should tell him that Bill is gone?” He asked me if I would, and I didn’t know if I could do it, but I got on the phone and the first thing I said was, “Brian, I’m going to let you on a secret. Bill had made arrangements to come see you this September.”

And I just told Bill the day before he died that he was going to be able to meet Brian in September in North Carolina. The National Association for Retarded Citizens had made the arrangements. And they’re going to make a tape recording of these two because Brian had been practicing the harmonically. He couldn’t quite get it, but he’d been practicing. Well, I told him that that Bill wouldn’t be able to keep that date and then I told him why. And then I talked nonstop for 30 minutes. I didn’t want to give Brian a chance to try and talk ’cause I could tell he couldn’t.

And at the end of it, I said, “Brian, do you understand and are going to be all right?” And he said, “Yeah.” And then his dad got on the phone. He said, “Brian just turned around and,” he said, “he had two buckets under his eyes and he went straight to his room.” I said, “Well, I hope I didn’t do this wrong.” And I apologized and I just, and he said, “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.” Then he went on to try and comfort me and was reading me some of the letters that Bill had had written and sent to Brian. And in the middle of it all, he stopped and he couldn’t talk. And I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Don’t you hear it?” And I listened harder and then I could. There was very bad harmonica music being played somewhere down in the bedroom.

Well, those are two stories. One a personal one and one a boy I haven’t met and Bill never did. And yet we were both equal buddies in Bill’s eyes. Bill started off really without a friend in the world and he ended up being everybody’s buddy. Like all great men he was a teacher whether he wanted to be or not. He taught social work out of a coffee shop. He taught life on a bus corner. And then he taught morality every time he made a decision. I was a lucky follower. I learned one thing and I didn’t learn it as well, probably, as Brian even. But I’d like to play Bill’s favorite song in memory of him.

I have one final thing. This was handed to me before I entered this afternoon. It was a poem written spontaneously by a person. A person who has had a long struggle herself. She is a handicapped person who has also made a difference. She’s a good writer and she deserves to have her poem read.

God’s Special Gift Sent From Above. A special man came into this world, he brought with him a special kind of love. Little did they know how Bill would touch lives, he was God’s special gift from above. Locked in a mental institution because of a misunderstood anger, that no one saw as hurt. Though he never complained, I wonder if he ever felt lonely, if he felt treated like dirt. When he was set free, it never failed, his smile was always on his face. He was a man of brotherly love, he was a credit to the human race. Bill was supplied with wisdom of a wise man and the innocence of a child. Bill Sackter was strong with courage, but with children oh so meek and mild. Bill has lived a life loving people, the purity so sweet and rare. He has taught us the lessons of how to really care. Bill has passed his lifelong test. Now it’s time to go home. He’ll play his mouth harp to his content, God is calling home His own. Bill was God’s sign to us when we think we really have it bad. He grew up all alone, now the whole earth was his family. Though very poor in wealth, he had more than the richest man on earth could ever have.

Someone suggested the day after Bill’s death, and we were all trying to make sense of this, that God must have needed a harmonica player pretty bad. Goodbye buddy, we’ll miss you.


Bill Sackter playing harmonica


Tom Walz discussing his relationship with Bill Sackter, Jan. 3, 1984

Tom Walz:
Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3, 4. Testing, testing.Let me try this again just one more time. Let me check something here. Okay. My name is Tom Walz, and I’m a professor at the School of Social Work. I came to the school in 1973 as director of the school, and it was about 1975 that I became acquainted with Bill Sackter. And how it happened is itself an interesting story. I had worked previously for 10 years at the University of Minnesota teaching there in the School of Social Work and several other departments. And during that time, I had become acquainted with a student from St. Olaf College nearby Minneapolis by the name of Barry Morrow. And Barry had done a summer project with me for credit. I was extremely impressed with his creativity and his ability. And this was early in my teaching career at the University of Minnesota. So that as I went ahead with my career and assumed a variety of other jobs, I usually would try to find a place for Barry who by that time had graduated, mainly to tap into his tremendously creative energies.And so it happened that when I was appointed director of the school of Social work at the University of Iowa, one of my first thoughts was, “How can I get Barry to come and join our staff?” And he at that time was very much into visual communications, particularly into video. And I thought we could put together an audiovisual center. And so I called Barry and asked him if he would like to be the director of our audiovisual center. Well, he pointed out that his life had been encumbered a little bit by assumption of the guardianship of this man named Bill Sackter whom I had never met. And Barry explained his relationship to Bill and said that he would really love to come to Iowa but it would be on one condition, and that was that we could find a position for Bill. So I assured Barry that I figured as director, I could do most anything, that I’d work something out. And about six months later, Barry showed up and shortly thereafter, Bill showed up.Anyway, it was going to be a little bit of a trick to know exactly what to do with Bill and how to pay him something because I couldn’t ask him to come to work at the school without offering him at least some kind of a salary. He was on SSI. He was on a welfare pension, but still he needed to supplement that. Just the cost of going to work every day would hurt him economically if he wasn’t being paid something. So I looked around and the only thing I had at that time that I felt I could dip into was a grant that we had from the National Institute of Mental Health. And I just remembered that Bill had all those years in the state mental institution that his very presence in the School of Social work would be a living part of our curriculum. And so I just decided that I’d hire him as what I called a developmental disabilities consultant with 44 years experience, the number of years he’d spent at Faribault State Hospital.So anyway, I wrote up the papers, and filled in the blanks, and sent it to our business office, and fortunately nobody questioned it. And Bill was on payroll, and he remained on payroll for the next eight years. The early years when Bill was at the school, the first job that he had had nothing to do with running a coffee shop. That’s a story in itself, how he shifts from what he starts out doing to running the coffee shop. Originally, when Bill came, we were in very much in the throes of renovating the school. This was not being done by the university, but it was being done by mainly myself with the help of a couple of other interested faculty and a couple of students. And we were pretty much into, recycling some of the old oak furniture around the university and bringing it back into the school and getting rid of the formica and stainless steel type furniture that often characterizes public institutions. And most of what we could get ahold of usually required a little bit of recycling; that is we’d have to refinish it or patch it up one way or another.So I took one of the rooms that we had assigned to us in a new building that we just moved into. It was actually an old building that we had just moved into, but it was new to the School of Social Work. And we began to refinish all this old furniture, most of it nice old oak stuff. And I taught Bill how to do just some very basic and elementary refinishing. So he would show up in his overalls every morning and head to this little room and turn on the sander. He’d sand away, and sand away, and usually he had a radio going next to him listening to country western music. Or sometimes he’d bring his tape recorder with his polka on it and listen to that. Then he’d stop and chat with everybody. But basically he was locked away in that back room.Well, we kept this up for about six months and found ourself working frequently on Saturdays when nobody else was around. We could really get some work done. By this time, I joined Bill in the refinishing activity whenever I could. And there was another student, a graduate student who had been formerly imprisoned in one of the Iowa prisons and had gotten out on parole and was making his comeback, so to speak. And he was a very talented woodworker and upholsterer. And so this gentleman, and I, and Bill usually gathered together in the School of Social Work on Saturday mornings and sometimes Saturday afternoons, and we really worked.On one particular day, it was a day in July; I don’t know the exact date. But all I can tell you was it was extremely hot, well in the upper 90s, probably close to 100. And when we finished working, we were, I think varnishing some chairs that day. We were left with a sticky brush and no turpentine or paint thinner to clean the brushes. So our friend, the ex-con, had the idea that if we took some paint stripper and diluted it with water, that we could in fact accomplish the same as we could with paint thinner. So we did do that, and Bill was left to put things away, and he put that paintbrush in that mixture of water and paint stripper right in the window. And so with that hot hot air outside, and the sun bursting through that window, later in that day after we had left the school, apparently there was a spontaneous combustion fire.

Now, fortunately, somebody saw smoke billowing out of the school and called the fire department, and it got there in time to confine the fire to two of our rooms, one our furniture-refinishing room and one of our faculty offices. Well, needless to say, that was just a traumatic experience for both Bill and I. I didn’t even have the heart to go in and look at the thing over the weekend. So I waited till Monday morning, and when I got there, there was Bill standing at the front door and his eyes were down to his ankles; he was so sad. And the fire department or the university workmen were hauling out all of our charred oak furniture and everything we’d struggled so long with. And Bill just thought everything was over, and he was just in absolute despair with the exception that he also saw that I was really distressed by all of this, not at him, but at myself, and just feeling dumb and awkward about it. And he was struggling to be reassuring to me that I’d be all right.

Anyway, we muddled through that and really more embarrassed than anything else. And I was left with what happens to Bill? So Barry and I put our heads together and I said, “What we need in this school is a little coffee shop, little coffee niche.” And we had one small room there that wasn’t being used, so we just put a coffee pot in it and sat Bill down beside it and said, “Bill, serve people coffee when they come in here,” and that really is the beginning of Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop. Later on, several years later, we moved into a much larger space because the coffee shop was such a tremendous success. We’ve been in that space ever since.

Well, how do I describe my relationship to Bill? I love the man. He was extremely close to me. I consider him one of the very best friends I’ve ever had in my life, and not in a patronizing sense. It had nothing to do with my being a social worker and he being someone who spent part of his life in a mental institution and had some mental deficits. I think it was simply that I liked that man’s qualities, his virtues, his personality, his cheerfulness. He was charming and fun. We just had a great time and great respect for each other, close friends, close friends.

I guess this will bring me into then telling you some stories that I remember about Bill, and none of them are terribly dramatic, and most of them really serve to document the authentic friendship that we shared. And maybe I could begin with typical days. There’ll be a day in the life of myself and Bill at school, and then what I call our Sundays together that we shared for the better part of eight years. Let’s take a typical school day. As you know, Bill would arrive at the school, God knows when, but he was always here before anybody else got here, probably somewhere between 7:00 and 7:30, and he would stand at the front door. This is after he got comfortable, and confident, and a bit more self-assured, and had some positive feedback that he was accepted here.

He would sit and/or stand there and greet all of the daycare children. We had a daycare center on the floor below the school. He would sit there or stand there as they came in. He would shake their hand and tell them what a pretty dress they had or how nice they looked that day. And he’d always tell them the same thing every day, but kids apparently like to hear that and are not bothered by the repetition. And it was such a great service because these mothers or fathers would be dropping off their kids, and the kids were usually teary-eyed or weepy or uncertain about leaving the hand of their parent. And Bill would just distract them and get them interested and making it fun and interesting to come into the building that they would simply relax and leave the hand of their parent very comfortably. The parents noted this and really learned to love Bill as much as their children did.

I know there was one mother who worked for the university, I think she was a graduate student in psychology, who Bill explained to me later on, they developed a very close friendship. And she frequently invited him to her home for dinner and to play with the kids and so on. But she twice gave him some very expensive presents. On one occasion, she gave him a beautiful recliner chair that he had in his apartment that he actually slept in. And on another occasion, she bought him a plane ticket to go to Washington DC after Senator Culver, then senator of Iowa, invited him for a visit. This was again after he was named Handicapped Iowan of the Year.

And there were probably many other parents of these daycare children that had various kinds of relationships with Bill because he was busy and gone all the time. He could never remember names, so he could never really tell me where he’d been or who he’d been with other than he always had a good time. “Sure had a lot of fun doing that,” he’d say. Well, that was the beginning of the day. Then by the time I got to the school, he would notice that I was in the building, and immediately I’d have this cup of coffee. “How are you, Tom? Beautiful day. Nice weather. Lord sure gives us good times, doesn’t he, Tom?” And then he’d reassure me how much he enjoyed being here, and he’d found a marvelous family, and this was just the nicest place to work and everything, always on the upbeat, everything positive. And I’d laugh and tease him a little bit, and then he’d move out and go about his business.

Well, a couple hours later, about the time I needed a second cup of coffee, I never had to ask, in he’d come and there’d be a hot cup of coffee. Usually maybe on the second time around, he might try to con me into making a telephone call for him to one of his friends or to Barry while Barry was still with us then or to people that he knew. He loved to call on the phone, and he loved to call anybody he thought might be a relative. He really didn’t have an authentic relative at that time, but he still found people to call. Well, he’d work till 3:30 in the afternoon, and then he’d start getting himself organized and he’d walk to… Or usually he’d get somebody to drive him downtown to pick up his bus and head back to his apartment and to the Mae Driscoll household.

I should mention during lunchtime, it was always fun because there he’d be in that coffee shop. And Mae always packed him this great big lunch in one of those old blue collar lunch metal black lunch boxes, and it’d be just stuffed full of food. And Bill would sit there and he’d keep his… He had a bad ulcerated leg, and he’d put that up on a chair, and there he’d sit and eat that lunch with those furtive eyes moving around the room, looking for conversation and looking to smile at people. But almost everybody who was in the school will remember that picture of Bill with his bib overalls with his lunchbox open, sitting there.

The other thing you remember about a day in the life of Bill at the school is, oh, sometimes I’d be in the middle of a very intense meeting or a one of those things that where you feel some anxiety and tension in the air or some problem with school. And all of a sudden out in the hallway, you’d hear this harmonica music, the Too Fat Polka or something like that, and it would always bring a smile to my face. And that was Bill.

Well, I was going to tell you also about a typical day on a Sunday. I don’t know where the custom started, but Bill always wanted to go somewhere. He always had his itinerary filled, and he had reserved Sundays for me for the most part. There were times when he’d find another faculty member or something else he preferred to do, but I was always a good last resort. And the way it would happen is that I would be expected to pick him up at 9:00 or a little before so he could go to church with me. I went to St. Mary’s Church in Iowa City.

Now as you know, Bill was a Jew and managed to get to Protestant services and to Catholic services as well, Catholic services with me. So he would… When I’d go to pick him up, and this is a story in itself, in all of the eight years that I went to pick up Bill, there was never one time that he wasn’t outside waiting for me, even if I was an hour late or 20 minutes early. So I don’t know how he either knew when I was going to come or how long he prepared himself for when I might arrive by going outside and waiting.

But he was always there, always there, big smile, big wave. He’d get in the car and same routine. “Oh, nice day, Tom. We’re going to go pray to the Lord. Oh, I’m so glad to be able to go to that church. You sure have a lovely church.” And then we’d chat like that. And then we’d talk a little bit about what we were going to do the rest of the day. And that was always the same pattern. I mean, we were always going to do the same thing.

Well, anyway, we’d go to church and Bill would sit next to me and he just would get into this religious mindset. He would mimic the words of the songs and the prayers that were uttered, and he was just attentive to the whole thing. And he’d catch a word or two of the homily and afterwards tell me what a great sermon that was. It was all about Jesus or all about Mary Magdalene or what. And then the only other thing I remember about him in church was that as the years went by half the town knew him so that when he went into church, there would be people that he knew either from the daycare center or from the different places that he’d been and different people that he knew. So he was always waving and making eyes at the little kids who’d recognized them. And you’d walk in, “There’s Bill. There’s Bill.” So anyway, we would end our day at Mass with the Holy Communion. Bill would go up and put his hand out for the communion, and that would be the end of the church.

Well, on Sundays as a matter of routine, I always played basketball, played with a group of older men, and we had a basketball gymnasium right in the North Hall building where the School of Social Work was located. Bill would go along, and he would sit in the stands, and there was usually a little kid or two that had come with one of their fathers who played on our basketball team. And Bill would sit and chat with the little kid and play his harmonica and amuse them, and/or he would go upstairs and spend his dollars worth of change on pop. He loved to drink pop, and he would buy me a Diet Pepsi and buy himself a Diet Pepsi. He was always buying diet pop and drinking light beer because he “didn’t want to have too much fatness,” as he said.

So anyway, Bill would patiently sit through the two hours of basketball and wait for me to get done. And after that, he knew what to expect, that we would head onto my house, and I’d fix him a nice lunch. But more important, we’d have some cold beers. He loved cold beers. We always had beer with our lunch on Sunday afternoon or Sunday noon. Well, then we’d sit, and I’d put my feet up and rest a bit, and Bill would nod off in a chair. But about 1:00 we’d say it’s time to go to the garage, and we’d head down to my garage and start refinishing furniture. And we’d really work three, four hours. Bill would quickly go over and turn on the radio. He’d get the country western music stations, and then we’d just sit and sand away.

This was such a routine that my neighbors, and I live in a circle, always assumed Bill was my father. I had a grayish beard, and Bill had that beautiful gray beard, and they just took it for granted that Bill was my father. They’d see us out there just in the summertime when we had the garage door open, would see us there sanding away. But anyway, it wouldn’t be long before Bill would say, “Boy, I sure I’m getting thirsty, Tom. Maybe we should have him another beer.” And I’d have to trudge up to the refrigerator or send him up sometimes. And he’d come down with a couple of beers, and we’d nurse those until most of the afternoon. And then sometimes if it was a really hot day, when we cleaned up at the end of the day, Bill would ask for a third beer. He was bottomless; he could drink any amount of this stuff.

And all this time when we were sanding, we would tease and joke each other, and there were standing jokes. I’d always ask him when he was going to get married, and he’d get upset by that. He says, “I’m not going to get married. I’m going to marry a horse.” He’d have a standard reply for everything that I’d tease him with. Well, when we were refinishing in the garage, we were accompanied by Lola, who Bill renamed. He always renamed. He never quite caught people’s names. And so he’d pronounce your name as he thought he heard it. Barry Morrow was always Barry Moore. But anyway, my dog’s name is Lola, and somehow it came out to Bill as Roloff. Roloff, I later found out was one of these radio evangelists who Bill must have heard on the radio. He listened to them all the time. But anyway, he liked to Roloff, but he was always a little afraid of the dog too because he’d been bitten once by a dog.

But anyway, the three of us were always there, and I’d always tease Bill about, I’m going to give Bill Roloff for Christmas because one Christmas I’d given Bill a bird, which he deeply loved and cared for, and come very close to him. And I said, “Well, you’re just so good with animals. I’m going to give you a Roloff.” “Oh, no, Tom,” he’d say, “Oh, no, no, no. I don’t want no dogs. I don’t want no dogs. We got too many dogs already, Tom. We got too many dogs already.” So anyway, those little jokes would go on. The other thing that we did both at school and by ourselves in the garage was Bill was great at mimicking words. And whenever someone who didn’t speak English talked to him or talked near him, Bill always assumed that he understood what they were saying, and he would talk right back to them, not in Spanish or Italian or French or whatever they were speaking, but in an idiom or with the intonation of that particular language, but mainly saying gibberish.

So the two of us had this way of talking gibberish to each other. And usually we would do it in a Norwegian accent because we were both Minnesotans. “[foreign language 00:25:53].” And Bill would say, “[foreign language 00:25:56].” And on we’d go making nonsense. And we’d do that at school, and a lot of people who didn’t really know the inside joke would assume that we were talking some strange language, and they were always impressed that Bill with his limited intellect was bilingual or trilingual or whatever. But we had fun with that.

Well, that would bring us to the end of the day, and then the final event was I was always the one that cooked supper on Sunday night. I’d go up around 4:00 and start working on supper. Bill would sit nearby and munching on some goodies, some crackers, and maybe nursing the end of his beer, and then about 5:00, he’d help me set table. We’d all sit down to a family dinner, and Bill was just like our Sunday guest, always there. My children at that time took him for granted. He wasn’t anything special. He was my close friend, and my wife liked him, and the kids liked him, but they just didn’t think much about it.

Even when he became a celebrity, they could never figure out what was there to celebrate about Bill. I mean, Bill was just Bill, but we enjoyed each other. And then after supper, in the good weather, we’d all go sit outside with our cup of coffee and just sit and watch the world go by and talk about nothing. And then when our coffee was done, it would be time to take Bill home, and he’d get home in time to go to Protestant church services with his landlady, May. But those were great Sundays, and they’re something that I deeply miss. Life hasn’t been the same obviously since Bill’s death. He meant more to me, I guess, than almost anybody that I’ve known who has died.

Well, let’s go on to some other stories. I want to share the one about our trip to Washington DC. When Bill was invited by Senator Culver, I just decided this was a good time for me to go do a little work for the school and share in Bill’s time in Washington. Barry was going to go along and accompany him as well. I had a idea at that time that we might do a little documentary about Bill because even at this stage, as may have been 1977, ’78, Bill had won the Iowa Handicapped of the Year, and we thought it was quite an incredible story, and that he was quite an incredible man, and he was so photogenic that it would be fun to do a documentary on about him. And so I was going to go talk to the Kennedy Foundation people and some other people; I think public radio or public television or someone.

And so Barry and Bill had gone the day before, and I was to catch up with them the following day. So by the time I got to Washington, Barry had been with Bill for about a day and a half. He whispered to me that he was getting tired of having to shadow Bill all the time because Bill would go off anywhere and walk off with anybody else. So anyway, Barry and I struck a deal that I would spend the evening with him so Barry could get off and do something on his own. We had arranged that in the morning. Well, Barry and Bill went off on their own, and I went off and did my work. And before I returned to the hotel room, which was in a seedy area of Washington, I had stopped to buy a bottle of bourbon or something so we could have a little cocktail hour when Barry and Bill got back.

And I had a drink or two when I got back to my room, and then when Barry and Bill came in, we had a drink. And Bill again loves… He could drink anything. And so we maybe had a little too much. We were feeling pretty good, and Barry was going to go to a Broadway play or to a play or something in Washington at 8:00 that night. And Bill and I were starting to get hungry. So we said goodbye to Barry and started out the door as we quickly realized, our legs were a little unsteady from the alcohol, and we decided that what we really needed to do was to get food into us as quickly as we could. And of course, Bill is just feeling terribly funny and charming and affable with the little bit of alcohol that he’s got in him.

Anyway, we went to an outdoor restaurant, or at least we thought it was a restaurant, and asked for a menu. Well, we were quickly told that they didn’t serve food. It was only a drinking place. And oh, that’s the last thing we needed, but Bill wanted a beer, so we ordered a beer. Well, then we had the beer on top of the bourbon, and by this time, we’re even a little bit more unsteady. I said, “Bill, we’ve got to get food. We’ve got to get food.” So we headed out and not knowing Washington, just hoping to run into a restaurant. Well, we saw a little cafeteria, not a fancy one, but one of those crowded, bustling cafeterias. So in we went, got in line and just we were not managing well. We both were a little tipsy. And by the time we got through that line, we had knocked over plates, food, our silverware was on the floor. We were laughing. Everybody thought we were crazy, but we managed it. We eventually got our food and our trays and got through the line and sat down and ate it.

Well, even after our supper, I still didn’t feel all that sober, and I wasn’t sure what to do, and I wasn’t even sure where our hotel was at this point. So we saw one of those little one block square type parks and little mini park, and decided that we’d go over and sit on a bench there. So we go over and sit on a bench, and all of a sudden I discover, this is really Seedsville; it is really shady looking area. And before I have a chance to suggest to Bill that we get up and out of here, he starts playing the harmonica.

And within seconds, we have two of the vagranty looking type people that you can imagine. And they asked for a quarter or something, and Bill gives them it, and the word must spread because we were surrounded by at least 30 to 40 people within minutes. And fortunately, they weren’t all there to ask for quarters, but they were just charmed by his harmonica playing and so on. And to Bill, the whole world was his friend. And so he just looked at everybody and smiled and asked them how they were doing and all of that, just feeling as good as can be. And there I was, nervous, scared, not feeling very well as the alcohol started to wear off. And so finally, I talked him in that we had to go back to the hotel room.

Well, we went back to the hotel room. We finally got back to the hotel room, and I asked him if he wanted to catch a little nap or something, I mean, to go to bed at that time or stay up or whatever he wanted to do. And he just decided he’d go to sleep. And so he put on his pajamas and within seconds was asleep like a baby, which he apparently did every night. And I struggled to get to sleep in the light of all of his snores. Well, I’m sure there are a lot of other anecdotes about this Washington trip, but I’m going to leave most of those for Barry.

A second story I want to tell is about our… Oh, this is the last year of his life, the Christmas before he died, our trips to some of the colleges where he played Santa and we showed his movie, the first movie, Bill. After these movies of course, Bill became a national celebrity, and people would ask him to come to different events and so on. And word got out among college students in Iowa that fun Christmas event was to show the movie Bill and to have Bill come and to meet the principle about whom this film was made.

So one of the colleges that we went to was Luther College up in Decorah, Iowa, and it was on a December 9th, I think. This would’ve been 1982. Bill, by the way, had had a beautiful Santa Claus suit that my mother had made for him. It just fit him perfectly. And of course, with his big beard and his jolly face and those sparkling eyes, he was the perfect Santa. Anyway, they wanted us to go up to the college up in Decorah and visit with the mentally retarded citizens in the afternoon, different day activity treatment centers, and then we were to have supper with the president, show the movie, and then go back to our… Well, then we were free to do whatever we wanted to do. In this case, we were going to have to get up the next morning and go to another college, Clarke College in Dubuque, and do the same event all over again.

So we’d worked out a little pattern for the entertainment, which was to show the movie, and then we’d have Bill dressed as Santa come out at the end of the movie and go, “Ho, Ho, Ho. Merry Christmas everybody,” and meet everyone and sign autographs or whatever would happen. But anyway, let me explain. The whole day. Decorah is about three and a half hours away from Iowa City, so we had to get up pretty early because we needed to be there by noon. And it was a tough drive. And so we got up there. This is winter time; the highways are not all that good. We got up there, went and signed into a hotel room, and then went over to the college and met our host. Our host then took us to the first of a series of visits we would make with different retarded citizens groups.

In each case, they looked around and expected a certain amount of entertainment from Bill, and he’d play his harmonica shake hands, and they’d ask him questions and all of that. And he loved doing that, and he seemed to do it without getting very tired, and he just breezed right on through it. Well, we went through that for the whole afternoon, and we then were taken back to the college where by 6:00 we had to be ready to have dinner with the president. Well, it ends up, this is a big, big dinner with 40 people. And again, there’s a certain amount of socializing and being the celebrities and all of this for the college. And Bill again does it with great ease and charm. I find it rather tiresome and tiring, but he just loved it.

Well, then after this meal, we moved into another room where there they were to have this showing of the movie, and I had to arrange that I get Bill into the Santa Claus suit, sneak out at the end, get him into a Santa Claus suit so he comes in and does this big thing at the end of the movie. Well, we get through all of that, and my gosh, it must be 10:30 at the end of the movie. Of course, everybody wants to talk to Bill and some wanted him to sign the program and whatever else. It must be 11:15 before we’re finally released from our obligations to this college. I am tired, I am exhausted, and I want to get back to our hotel room.

Well, I had forgotten that I had promised Bill that if he really stuck it out today, I’d buy him a beer. And he reminded me of that. I said, “Bill, aren’t you tired? We got to do this again tomorrow.” “Oh, no, Tom. I’m just feeling fine. I’m fine. What I need is a good beer, Tom.” So Decorah, Iowa, it isn’t a dry town, but it isn’t really a wet town either.

So the only place I could find was this seedy bar, and I had forgotten Bill was still in a Santa Clause suit. December 9th, cold, 11:30, we walk into this pub and sit down at the bar myself and Santa. And of course, Bill is totally unselfconscious about the fact that he’s in a Santa suit. I think he feels sort of that he is Santa Claus. And there we sat and nursed our beers and just had… And I was so tired, I could care less what people were saying about us or whether they were looking at us. But I could tell from the corner of my eye that several of those people who were several sheets from the wind just weren’t quite sure what was going on and whether Santa hadn’t really arrived in their lives. But finally, we trudged out of there about midnight back to our motel room. He was asleep in 10 minutes, and I struggled to get to sleep two hours later, and up we were and on our way to Clarke College the following day.

All right, well, my next story is going to be a kind of a strange one, but it’s one that has to be told because this is Bill. This happened on many occasions, but as a man gets older sometimes he passes gas involuntarily. Bill was prone to do this. I remember we were driving back from Clarke College after the same series of engagements with Bill being Santa Claus, and he passed gas in the car. And you knew it was coming; whenever he did it, he’d start to giggle, and he couldn’t control it. It must have been something he’d carried over from childhood or whatever. And he’d start laughing, and his laughing was so infectious that it would make you laugh. And I’d start laughing, and the two of us laughed until we cried for at least 20 miles, at least 20 minutes. I have never laughed so deeply about anything else in my life, and only Bill could make me do it over such a silly, silly thing, but it is something that I’ll always remember.

Among the important things that Bill brought to my life was his ability to work with me in carrying out the little social work activities that I would do. After five years as director of the school, I left the school and went to work at family practice and worked in the area of gerontology. I was interested in knowing more about aging and working in that area. And one of my jobs was simply to be a social worker at a nursing home. And so periodically when… This nursing home was about 30 miles out of town in a little small town area. I would invite Bill to go along with me when I had to drive out. And Bill would go along with me and he just, after the first visit, just loved to go.

He wanted to go all the time. And he had that sense of he was going to help those little old people. “Oh, those poor little old ladies,” he’d say, “Oh, those poor little old ladies.” And he just had a way of about him. The same thing that he had with children, he had with had handicapped people and with older people. That is, he had this very strong overt way of touching them, talking to them, saying nice things about them, complimenting them. Now, to me, it sounded a little canned at times, a little less than coming from deeply within. But Bill, it was just a courteous thing to do and say, and he would do it, and say it, and do it very successfully. People just loved having him visit.

There was even one occasion where I had a very sensitive case of a person who had attempted suicide, and I felt very uncomfortable about this. This wasn’t an older person; this was a younger person. And I can remember I had to visit the person in the hospital following the suicide attempt, and I was just really uncomfortable about knowing what to say and what to do. And Bill went along with me, and he just took the pressure out of the environment and played his harmonica. And I don’t know, just, he always made it seem… He was very convincing that life was really worth living. And this was the guy who’d spent a tragic 44 years of his life in a state metal institution. And in those days, which was probably pretty much of a snake pit.

So we just teamed together, and we had a sense. Bill had a sense about him as to what I was trying to do and how he would contribute to that. In the last two years of his life, we had gotten involved in a summer project where we would teach learning-disabled high school kids how to refinish furniture, and they would be paid under a SETA contract and earn a little money as well. And I had asked Bill to join as part of the group because he knew furniture refinishing, and he was in the building where this was taking place. It was in the basement of North Hall.

And Bill again with these learning disabled kids was just marvelous. He’d buy them a pop, and he’d play his harmonica, and he’d listen to music. He’d listen to their music. He was very tolerant and patient, and he had a way of just treating everybody as equals. To Bill, everybody just was an equal. And it sounds strange to say for somebody who himself was a retarded citizen, but he just had a neat way about him, and in some ways, his relationship with children was just like that. He would talk to them as if they were real people. That’s how he regarded everyone.

Well, at this point, it’s a shame. I wish I could… I’m sure there are just 100 other stories that my poor sense of the past is not allowing me to recall and remember. I suspect that there’ll be others who are contributing to this effort at reminiscing about Bill that will pick up stories that I certainly have missed. Again, I can say in ending this, my particular chapter of reminiscence is about Bill’s life that his mental deficiency wasn’t the basis of the strong personal relationship I had with him. I think it helped contribute to his own purity as a person and personality.

Bill was authentic. Bill was real. Bill was beautiful inside, and I admired that. I mean, I admired that. In my mind, he was a living saint. I was touched by his religiosity. I was touched by the depth of his feelings, and again, his simplicity maybe allowed it to come out without embarrassment, whereas most of us hide that. I was impressed, I guess, by his giving quality. He always seemed to have his needs met whenever he was doing something for someone else, or his little way of doing something for someone else was usually letting them do something for him. He would play that game on, and on, and on, and on, that, “Oh, yes, thank you for helping me. Oh, you’re so kind. Thank you for making that learning to dial that telephone and all of that.”

I remember in the second movie, when the social work student tries to teach him to read and write and be more independent, that that might have been as, I guess the movie points out too, the worst thing that could have ever happened because it was Bill’s dependency, interdependent relationship with other people that gave them the feeling of doing good to somebody who was so much fun to do good with or for.

Well, I’m going to end this by simply saying, Bill, you’re deeply missed, deeply missed, but you made your contribution. If we could all make accomplish what you did in your eight years, it would be a good life for all of us.


From the podcast Wild Bill’s Cup of Social Justice

https://cupofjustice.org/ (from the University of Iowa School of Social Work)