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The Bill Sackter Story

A Small Life Lived Large

by Emily Grosvenor

bill sackter, A friend indeed
Bill Sackter loved working at Wild Bill's Coffeeshop on the University of Iowa Campus.

By today’s standards, it is a rare person indeed who looks better every single year of his adult life. But that is exactly what happened to Bill Sackter. With each passing year, it seemed, his smile broadened, his eyes shined brighter, his hair looked great. Within the span of 20 years, Sackter went from forgotten and neglected ward of the state to local hero to internationally recognized face of the disability rights and independent living movement.

A Friend Indeed - The Bill Sackter Story, a gleefully loving documentary tribute to this man and the community that helped him thrive, premiered at Hancher Auditorium on June 7 to a full house in the 25th anniversary year of his death. Among those in attendance were many people who knew Bill Sackter, his longtime caretaker Barry Morrow, and Lane Wyrick, the young Iowa City filmmaker who has brought Sackter’s story to the big screen.

“I wanted people to know the real Bill,” said Wyrick, who has spent seven years dissecting old Super 8 film footage and interviewing Sackter’s friends to cull a story that is both heartachingly touching and—a rare feat—community bolstering.

Sackter was born in St. Paul in 1913 to Jewish Russian immigrant parents. When he was seven years old, his mother placed him in the Faribault School for the Feeble-minded and Epileptic, previously the Minnesota Institute for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. He spent 44 years there before being released to a halfway house at a time when states began looking for alternatives to institutionalization.

Sackter first crossed paths with Barry Morrow at a Christmas party at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis in the late 1960s, where Sackter had been working part time as a dishwasher. At the time, Sackter was overweight, had a goiter, had lost most of his teeth, and sported a regularly changing series of disheveled toupees.

Morrow soon adopted a caretaker role with Sackter, getting him the critical healthcare he needed and helping him adapt to a more independent lifestyle. A sociology student, Morrow began taking Bill around town with him to nightclubs and get-togethers. Some of the most compelling footage from A Friend Indeed chronicles the small triumphs of the two men’s friendship in these early years—Sackter playing harmonica, the two men talking, Morrow getting Sackter to explain his view of the world.

But then Morrow was offered a job in Iowa City just as Sackter was facing the amputation of a much-neglected leg. Instead of abandoning him there, Morrow and his wife packed him up and took him along, later launching a successful petition to become Bill's legal guardian.

“It all looks terrific looking back 40 years, but we had no idea what we were doing,” Morrow said.

Sackter was all but primed to make a difference. In the early 1970s, people with disabilities were not very common on the streets of Iowa City. The institutions were still pretty full, the county home was very active, and the presence of social agencies were virtually non-existent in this area, according to Dr. Thomas Walz, then UI Dean of the School of Social Work.

“Bill was such an approachable person and obviously a very safe person—the community rallied around him quickly,” Walz said. “Iowa City was really the kind of soil where a guy like Bill could flourish.”

Sackter became a regular figure in Iowa City, and the town plays a cameo in the film that will tug at the heartstrings of anyone who has lived there. He shuttled to and from work at Wild Bill’s Coffeeshop, a little set-up for him in a building on the University of Iowa social services campus where he rung up purchases on a Victorian-era cash register (the act was perfunctory—he could neither read nor write). Walz even got Sackter a job on campus as a Developmental Disabilities Consultant at the UI School of Social Work. Indeed, as the film goes on, A Friend Indeed becomes as much a portrait of a time and a people as of a single person.

“If this would have been Chicago, he probably wouldn’t have found any support,” said director Wyrick, a native of Iowa City. “In a big city Bill would have fallen through the cracks.”

But thrive he did, becoming Iowa’s Handicapped Person of the Year in 1977 and later visiting the White House at the invitation of President Jimmy Carter.

“He never made the connection that he had become a celebrity,” said Morrow, who left Iowa City for Hollywood in 1982 to become a screenwriter and went on to win an Academy Award in 1988 for Best Screenplay for the film Rain Main. “He did not change who he was.”

Sackter’s surprising and inspiring life story has already warranted one high-profile film treatment. In 1982, actor Mickey Rooney won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Sackter in Bill, a made-for-television movie that chronicled the man’s journey from ward of the state who struggles to live on his own after leaving an institution for the mentally disabled. The movie permanently altered many Americans’ perceptions of disabled people and sparked widespread discussions about how to integrate them into communities.  Rooney later reprised the role in Bill: On His Own, which was televised the year Sackter died.

This new film shows Sackter as he was. And when he climbs on stage to jam on his harmonica—which he did every chance he could get—his joy fills the screen. With apologies to Mickey Rooney, it is safe to say that the real Bill Sackter is a compelling screen persona with a real-life presence that trumps any fictionalized account of him.

“Everyone loved him,” said director Lane Wyrick. “He had this almost gravitational pull on people.”

Now Bill Sackter’s story lives on in several incarnations: in two Mickey Rooney television biopics, in the Thomas Walz book The Unlikely Celebrity: Bill Sackter’s Triumph Over Disability, at Uptown Bill’s Small Mall, a collection of small (non-profit) shops managed and operated by persons with disabilities at 401 S. Gilbert St. in Iowa City, and through this new, loving portrait, a work that lends credence to Sackter’s well-deserved legend.

A Friend Indeed - The Bill Sackter Story won "Best Documentary," "Best Iowa Film," and was voted "#1 Audience Favorite" at the Hardacre Film Festival in early August. The film will screen on September 19-25, 2008, at the Kansas International Film Festival in Overland Park, Kansas. In Iowa, you can see it October 1, 4 & 5, 2008 (7:30 p.m. for all shows) at the Englert Civic Theater in Iowa City, followed by Q&A with filmmaker Lane Wyrick. To see more photos and learn more about the film, visit www.billsackter.com/.

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Comments (1)Add Comment
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written by SarahLondon, August 18, 2008
Thanks for sharing this story with us. I remember watching the original movie and am excited to see this new one.
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