A Cup of Character - Renovated coffee shop celebrates anniversary

On the wall of Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop hangs a black-and-white snapshot of its founder. The aging, bearded man in overalls smiles gently behind a stainless steel coffee pot. A hand-written sign taped to the pot reads, “Coffe 25¢ per cup.”

The man is Bill Sackter, who began brewing coffee in North Hall, home of the University of Iowa School of Social Work, in 1975. Before a friend and caretaker brought him to campus, Sackter had been institutionalized for four decades due to intellectual limitations. He thrived in his role at the coffee shop, entertaining patrons with his harmonica and brightening their days with his cheerful nature.

Eventually Sackter earned national attention—he was named Handicapped Iowan of the Year, visited President Jimmy Carter in Washington, D.C., and saw his story told in two TV movies starring Mickey Rooney.

Sackter operated the shop until his death in 1983, and the School of Social Work has continued his legacy by keeping Wild Bill’s open and staffing it with individuals with disabilities. UI students gain volunteer and practicum experience by working with the staff as part of a support team.

The School of Social Work and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences recently completed a major renovation of the coffee shop—just in time for its 35th anniversary.

“Over the years, the University could have just said, ‘We’re not in the coffee-shop business,’ and turned this space into a lounge with pop machines,” says Jefri Palermo, who oversaw the project as development coordinator for the School of Social Work. “But people recognized the value in Wild Bill’s, and that really says something about the University.”

The main objective of the eight-month renovation was to improve the kitchen, making it wheelchair accessible and installing hot water. Work also involved restoring the wood floor and small stage and replacing worn furniture. The removal of old blinds and a coat of buttery yellow paint enhanced the room’s natural lighting, creating a bright, cozy gathering space.

Relics from the past were discovered in the course of construction. Wild Bill’s location, in room 321, was a kindergarten classroom from 1915 to 1972, when North Hall was University Elementary School. During renovations, workers discovered art created by the children and quarantine signs from the 1918 flu epidemic. A large shelving unit that housed the kids’ cubbies and a “reading circle” of 15 numbers painted on the wooden floor were preserved and incorporated into the project.

“We wanted to capture the funkiness and history of this space because that’s what makes it unique,” Palermo says.

Volunteers book events, from readings to dance, music, and theater performances. Faculty, staff, and students use the space for meetings and recreation, enjoying gourmet coffee and teas as well as an expanded menu that includes items from the Bread Garden, Oasis, and DeLuxe Cakes and Pastries.

Food and entertainment, however, are only part of the appeal, says Palermo.

“Our employees are truly delightful and eager to talk,” he says. “We consider them educators because they give patrons a different perspective on life. When you visit Wild Bill’s, you’re learning whether you know it or not.”

Bill Sackter’s story is the focus of a documentary film by UI alumnus Lane Wyrick. Learn more at the film’s web site, www.billsackter.com.

Nicole Riehl
with photos by Tom Jorgensen

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© The University of Iowa 2009