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Unlikely Celebrity

Bill Sackter's Triumph over Disability

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Thomas Walz. Foreword by Barry Morrow


NLEB (Other formats: Paperback)
160 pages, 6 x 9, 24 illustrations


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About the Book

Thomas Walz tells the story of Bill Sackter, a man who spent nearly half a century in a Minnesota mental institution and emerged to blossom into a most unlikely celebrity. Bill Sackter was committed to the Faribault State Hospital at the age of seven, there to remain until he was in his fifties. At the time of his commitment, Bill’s father had recently died; thus his sole contact with his family came through rare letters from his mother.

Some years after his discharge from Faribault as a result of the movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill in the 1960s, Bill enjoyed a serendipitous encounter with a young college student and part-time musician, Barry Morrow. Bill became part of the Morrow family and a regular in Morrow’s music group. When Morrow accepted a job at the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa, Bill followed him to Iowa City and was put in charge of a small coffee service.

Bill became an important part of the University of Iowa community, and Wild Bill’s Coffeeshop developed into an institution. A cheerful man of great good will who was a harmonica virtuoso, Bill began to inspire affectionate legends, and his life as a celebrity began in earnest. He was named Iowa’s Handicapped Person of the Year in 1977, and two television movies were made about his life—Bill, which earned Emmy awards for cowriter Barry Morrow and Mickey Rooney (as Bill) in 1981, and Bill on His Own in 1983. Years later, Morrow would earn an Oscar for his script of Rain Man.

Through vignettes ranging from hilarious to near tragic. Walz reveals a remarkable human being. An account of Bill's life in an institution is necessarily part of the story, but there is much more: Bill’s role in helping a young child recover from a coma, his menagerie of friends, his love for a pet parakeet, his late-life Bar Mitzvah, his failure as a woodworker, his success as Santa, and his dignified death at the age of seventy.


Thomas Walz is a professor of social work at the University of Iowa. His scholarly books are The Upsidedown Welfare State, Working in We/fire, Beyond Management: Humanizing the Administrative Process, and Sexual Health in Later Life (coauthored with Nancee Blurn). The founder and director of the annual National Creative Writing Seminar for Social Workers at the University of Iowa, he is a poet and the author of the novel Disaster Center.


"With warmth and wit and engaging style—with respect for all the players in this saga—Old Tom [Bill Sackter’s respectful appellation for Thomas Walz] takes us to a place where the air is clear. There, looking back, we see now that in our search to know Bill we were really looking for ourselves. His struggle was our struggle: that we might be good, too. What a happy, boundless idea."—Barry Morrow, from the Foreword

"Bill Sackter's life is the story of one man’s fight for self-determination and dignity. Bill was a community hero, someone who symbolizes what is good and right about where we live and helps us understand what community means. To this end, Bill’s is not a story of disability, but a story of dignity. Tom Walz gives voice to Bill Sackter and makes readers wish that they could have experienced the sense of community that Bill gave as a gift to those around him."—MichaelWehmeyer, Ph.D., Director, The Arc’s SeIf-Determination Program, The Arc of the United States