Community remembers Tom Walz and his role in Bill Sackter story

Champion of the disabled 'respected the dignity of people'

A makeshift memorial for Tom Walz is seen Monday outside the University of Iowa’s Hall. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A makeshift memorial for Tom Walz is seen Monday outside the University of Iowa’s Hall. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Decades ago on a trip in rural Mexico with some of his students, University of Iowa social work professor Tom Walz spotted a man weaving baskets from reeds.

He was a man few would notice. But Walz did and started talking to him, asking about his craft and his story. Soon, Walz had students and other faculty crowded into the weaver’s hut, watching him work and learning about his life.

“He would provide those serendipitous moments,” said UI professor emerita Eleanor Anstey. “No one else would go out and talk to some poor old laborer there in the market.”

No one but Walz, who after a fight with cancer died Saturday at age 84, leaving a legacy as a social worker who championed people with disabilities and created initiative after initiative to further their cause.

“He did not know race, color, creed, anything — he was one of the most accepting people I know,” Anstey recalled. “He respected the dignity of people.”

Nowhere was that more emblematic than in the pivotal role he played in the life of Bill Sackter, whose story was told in a 1981 film starring Mickey Rooney that won two Golden Globe and two Emmy awards.

Newly hired as dean of the UI School of Social Work, Walz was trying to recruit former student Barry Morrow to join the university faculty.

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But Morrow, who lived in Minnesota at the time, had met Sackter — a mentally disabled man who had lived for decades in an institution — through happenstance and forged a friendship he wasn’t willing to abandon. So if Morrow was to move to Iowa City, Sackter was, too.

Morrow said Walz was an easy sell on the idea — even if it meant bending the rules and experimenting with job opportunities for Sackter, including one attempt at furniture refinishing that nearly burned down UI’s North Hall.

“He was going to make it work,” Morrow said of Walz, noting they eventually found the “key to Bill’s success in making a pot of coffee.”

In the 1970s, they carved “Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop” out of unused space in North Hall, where Sackter worked until his death in 1983.

Morrow documented the story in two movies — “Bill” in 1981 and “Bill on His Own” in 1983.

Morrow, who later won an Oscar for his script of “Rain Man,” said Walz helped make the “Bill” movies reality.

“Tom just made that happen,” Morrow told The Gazette. “He let me avoid certain duties I had and concentrate on that.”

Walz, he said, perceived all the good inside Sackter. “Tom was a person who could see that,” Morrow said. “He was going to make a place for him in this world, even after I left, and protect him. And he did.”

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Walz had a remarkable capacity to see people for who they were, not just what they did, friends and colleagues said Monday. When blended with his altruistic world view, ceaseless energy, disregard for obstacles and constant ideas, Walz’s vision realized opportunities and inspiration for hundreds — if not thousands — in Iowa City and the world.

“I always think of him as a person — when he walks along, he’s kind of shooting off sparks of ideas, and you have to run, you can’t catch them all,” said Tom Gilsenan, director of Uptown Bill’s Coffee House in Iowa City. “But you try to catch a few, and then see if you can carry them out.”

Take the coffee house that Gilsenan now runs, along with the Extend the Dream Foundation, which Walz created in the late 1990s to serve people with disabilities and the aging by helping them establish their own enterprises and expand their job opportunities.

Uptown Bill’s, at 730 S. Dubuque St., is an offshoot of Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop on campus.

Walz also created the Disabilities Enterprise Foundation, the Iowa Disability Creative Works Gallery and Mick’s Workshop, a furniture and carpentry business that helps fund the nonprofit endeavors.

Over the years, Walz did a lot with social work in Mexico, was a visiting professor in Russia and had writing partners in India, according to Mercedes Bern-Klug, a UI social work professor and longtime friend. During one of his trips to India, he stumbled upon Mother Teresa and had a conversation.

He was fearless, according to Bern-Klug.

“He had an unusual collection of gentleness, compassion, smarts, creativity and chutzpah,” she said. “If he wanted to do it, he did it.”

Even after getting sick with cancer, Walz powered on — continuing visits to Mick’s and to friends’ homes. Uptown Bill’s Coffee House had planned to honor him with a “Founder’s Award” in April — but recently moved that up to Saturday due to Walz’s illness. Even without him now, the celebration will still go on.

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“Lots of people want to talk about him and what he meant to them,” said Jefri L. Palermo, development coordinator in the UI School of Social Work. “So he’ll be there in some form.”

Walz is survived by his wife of 60 years, Lisa, their six children and many grandchildren.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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