Wild Bill's is a learning lab in the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa.
Tom Walz created Wild Bill's Coffee Shop in 1975 (scroll down for more History) to provide a vocation for Bill Sackter, and since then it has evolved to become a nonprofit, service-learning project of the University of Iowa School of Social Work, with a focus on the clinical education of social work students and service to the community of people with disabilities. In 1975, people with disabilities had little access to employment and our students had little access to experiences working with disabled community members—so the coffee shop model was a wonderful solution to a big societal problem at that time. It has changed in many ways over time, but Wild Bill’s was in continuous operation from that time until the COVID-19 pandemic caused us to close our doors temporarily, in March of 2020.
As we reopen in Fall 2021, we have exciting news to share about the next chapter of Wild Bill’s.
During the pandemic closure, and even before that, we’ve been engaged in intensive strategic conversations about how Wild Bill’s can best serve our students and our School of Social Work mission—“to develop culturally responsive practitioners, scholars, researchers, and leaders to create a more just society”—far into the future.
Over the years, as coffee shops and kiosks have proliferated around us--both on campus and nearby--the number of customers in the coffee shop has dwindled, making our coffee shop staff (who are community members with disabilities like Bill was) pretty lonely at times.
Additionally, people with disabilities have continued to achieve fuller integration into all parts of our community including through mainstream employment opportunities, so the need to provide them with jobs and to give social work students the opportunity to interact with differently-abled people has also diminished. That’s actually pretty great news!
What is our vision for the future?
Wild Bill’s is no longer going to operate as a coffee shop. Instead, we are reimagining the space as a workshop and classroom—where students will:
- Learn hands-on social worker skills through labs, discussion groups, and practicum seminars.
- Build community, advocacy skills, and leadership in a social-justice-focused meeting and event space, available to campus and community groups.
- Create multimedia projects in a dedicated studio space, to advance understanding of social justice issues and advocate for the rights and inclusion of marginalized and oppressed people through storytelling.
We’ve just launched a new podcast called “Wild Bill’s Cup of Social Justice,” in which UI Social Work faculty, staff, students, and our guests engage in lively conversations about how social work promotes social justice—and how that work changes over time. Our first episode is all about the origin story of Wild Bill's Coffee Shop, Bill Sackter, Barry Morrow, and the School’s learning lab, and we’ll be talking in more detail about our vision for the future of Wild Bill’s. Check it out at www.cupofjustice.org, and subscribe to hear future episodes made by and with students and other guests!
We will also use the Wild Bill's space to accommodate CEU learning opportunities for social workers, and we hope to create a mini-museum exhibit of Wild Bill’s artifacts and photos. We are also partnering with UI Libraries Special Collections to ensure proper archiving of historical materials that won’t be on display.
Some things won’t change. Here in the School of Social Work, we will keep updating our teaching methods and finding creative solutions to big problems. We will keep striving to not only adhere to best practices in teaching, research, clinical practice, and service to the community—but also to imagine what the next best thing will be.
We promise to keep collaborating with the disabilities community to include people with disabilities in our social justice advocacy, and we will honor Bill Sackter’s memory by keeping his name on this space. We will always welcome you to visit Wild Bill’s, and we will always remember how Bill’s story changed the perspective of so many people and helped make the world more inclusive and equitable for people with disabilities.
During the University of Iowa academic year, Wild Bill's will be open to the public from 8:30 to 5, Monday - Friday, whenever Social Work classes are not scheduled to use the space.
We will not be accepting volunteers this semester.
321 North Hall
Iowa City, IA 52242
In his book The Unlikely Celebrity, Thomas Walz tells the story of Bill Sackter, a man who spent 44 years in a Minnesota mental institution and emerged to blossom into a most unlikely celebrity. Some years after his discharge from Fairibault State Hospital as a result of the movement to deinstitutionalize people with disabilities and mental illness in the 1960's, Bill enjoyed a serendipitous encounter with a young college student and part-time musician, Barry Morrow.
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. A cheerful man of great good will who was a harmonica enthusiast, 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. (Adapted from the back cover of The Unlikely Celebrity)
Wild Bill's was made famous when its first proprietor, Bill Sackter, was featured in a television movie and a sequel about his life. The first movie, which won Emmy awards for co-writer Barry Morrow and actor Mickey Rooney (as Bill Sackter), was called Bill (1981); the sequel was entitled Bill on His Own (1983). Years later, Morrow would win an Oscar for his script of Rain Man.
After Bill's death in 1983, the coffee shop expanded. It was remodeled in 2009, and until the retail operation ceased in 2020, employed 12+ persons with disabilities each academic year.
In 2008, Iowa Citian Lane Wyrick made a documentary about the real life of Bill Sackter, called A Friend Indeed—The Bill Sackter Story. The movie has won numerous awards. You can watch it for free on YouTube or at https://www.billsackter.com.
Support the mission of Wild Bill's
Help sustain Wild Bill's for years to come by making a donation through the UI Foundation. Visit www.givetoiowa.org and enter "Wild Bill's" in the search box under "Select the Areas to Support." Thank you!