After spending 44 years in a mental institution, Bill Sackter was determined to change how people thought about disabilities. Although Sackter died in 1983, his mission is still alive in Iowa City.
IOWA CITY, Iowa—Light pours into a large room surrounded by used books and old knickknacks. A band plays on a small stage, as listeners sway in their seats. Although Uptown Bill’s often showcases small concerts, April 20th was a special day of celebration; the coffee shop hosted a 106th birthday party for Bill Sackter, the man who inspired the place.
A new beginning
According to the documentary “A Friend Indeed,” an intelligence test taken by Sackter at the age of seven resulted in a 44-year stay in a Minnesota mental institution because the state believed he would be a “burden on society.” After Sackter’s release in 1964, he began to work as a handy man at a Minneapolis country club where he met screenwriter Barry Morrow. Morrow grew close with Sackter, eventually becoming his legal guardian.
When Morrow accepted a job in the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa, Sackter followed a few years later, and his warm, inviting personality allowed him to have a lasting impression on the Iowa City community.
Due to an intellectual disability, Sackter could only complete simple tasks, but enjoyed making coffee for students and staff of the School of Social Work in North Hall. His small job soon transformed into Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop with the help of Tom Walz, dean of the School of Social Work. The shop continues to run in North Hall, employing people of all abilities.
Established in 2001 with the help of the Extend the Dream Foundation, Uptown Bill’s Coffee Shop was created with the intention to highlight the life and values of Bill Sackter and his impact on the Iowa City community. The shop hosts community events for people of all abilities; allowing citizens to have a conversation about ability awareness and gaining understanding from people of diverse backgrounds.
Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop
Jen Knights, management supervisor of Wild Bill’s, said Sackter just needed a chance to thrive. The shop allowed him to share his disability with the community and created a space for integration of abilities in the city.
Wild Bill’s still employs staff of all abilities. They are tasked with jobs such as making coffee, running the cash register, and greeting customers.
“We really feel like it’s important for folks with disabilities to have the opportunity to just be part of the community and be seen as fully human and fully equal,” Knights said.
Although Wild Bill’s and Uptown Bill’s are named after Sackter and have similar missions, Knights said they are two separate entities. Tom Walz, dean of the School of Social Work helped keep Wild Bill’s open after Sackter died in 1983, and later on established a nonprofit named the Extend the Dream Foundationin the year 2000.
Extend the Dream Foundation
Extend the Dream Foundation treasurer, Holly Hart, said Walz created the foundation in order to continue Sackter’s mission of creating spaces for people of all abilities. The nonprofit began by helping people with disabilities set up and run small businesses.
Since its start in 2001, Uptown Bill’s is the biggest business that the foundation sponsors, Hart said. The nonprofit has a board of directors who keep watch of the shop’s finances and make sure the business functions properly.
Support from the Extend the Dream Foundation gave Uptown Bill’s the ability to pursue media projects, Hart said. The shop helps publish books by and about people with disabilities, and the foundation recently acquired a low-power FM radio license, which allows them to reach a wider audience.
To learn more about the radio station sponsored by the Extend the Dream Foundation, listen below.
Although Uptown Bill’s is called a coffee shop, Hart says the place serves a wider purpose. The shop sells new and used books, puts on weekly musical and open mic shows, and provides a space for organizations to conduct meetings.
Hart said Iowa City organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous find Uptown Bill’s useful for group sessions.
“They enjoy it because it’s institutional enough, but not like meeting in a cold place; it’s a fun place to be,” Hart said.
Jason Grubbe, who has managed the shop since July 2018, said they usually have concerts and open mike nights four times each month. There is a sign-up sheet in the shop for anyone who wishes to perform spoken word, and Grubbe books the musical acts every week.
Grubbe said performers enjoy coming to Uptown Bill’s regardless of how large the crowd is because of the inviting atmosphere.
“It’s a place where people can come and feel safe and feel like they can be themselves,” Grubbe said.
Take a look at the gallery below to see the celebration of Bill’s Birthday Bash, where musicians play to honor Bill Sackter.
Tom Gilsenan, who worked as executive director of the shop from 2010-18, said while Uptown Bill’s employs people of all abilities, they also have volunteers who regularly help the shop. Members of the University of Iowa service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega come weekly to assist in cleaning and organizing Uptown Bill’s.
Gilsenan said all of the different things Uptown Bill’s does makes it a unique organization to Iowa City, and it keeps Bill Sackter’s mission alive.
“Uptown Bill’s makes sure the story of Bill is constantly retold to the community,” Gilsenan said.