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Book Review   |    
The Unlikely Celebrity: Bill Sackter's Triumph Over Disability
Maureen Slade, R.N., M.S.
Psychiatric Services 2000; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.51.7.943-a
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by Thomas Walz; Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1998, 127 pages, $19.95 softcover

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The subject of The Unlikely Celebrity, William "Bill" Sackter, should have lived and died in relative obscurity. Instead, he was the focus of two made-for-television movies and the recipient of numerous state and national awards for retarded citizens. Bill inspired love and devotion in small children and state legislators alike. According to Barry Morrow, Oscar-winning screenwriter of the film Rain Man and at one time Bill's guardian, "In our search to know Bill, we were really looking for ourselves. His struggle was our struggle: that we might be good, too. What a happy, boundless idea."

Thomas Walz, a professor of social work at the University of Iowa and a primary member of Bill's support system, felt compelled to write this thought-provoking and sympathetic portrayal of Bill, possibly because of his personal struggle to come to terms with having a mentally challenged brother and son. Walz does an excellent job of bringing Bill to life by employing the words and sentence structure Bill might have used. There are many poignant and heart-warming vignettes about Bill's life both inside and outside institutions.

In 1920, at the age of seven, Bill entered a Minnesota State School for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptics, where he remained for about 45 years. Walz gives a balanced view of life in an institution, effectively describing the socialization Bill received as an "inmate." Attendants subjected Bill to two attacks over the years. The first resulted in Bill's permanently losing his hair, leading to a lifelong obsession with wigs, and the second caused a chronic ulceration in his leg.

Bill also learned to play the harmonica at the institution and developed a strong spiritual foundation, both of which held him in good stead throughout his life. Those familiar with the values, norms, and living conditions in the state hospitals during that era will not find the descriptions of Bill's life experiences unusual and will be reminded of how far we've come in the care of the mentally challenged.

When Bill was 62 years old and drifting aimlessly as a ward of the state, a young couple, Bev and Barry Morrow, took an interest in him and petitioned for guardianship. Barry accepted a job at the University of Iowa School of Social Work with the understanding that Bill would also be employed at the school. Bill eventually became the sole proprietor of Wild Bill's Coffeeshop on the University of Iowa campus. This job delighted Bill, who believed that all good men must work a full-time job. He interacted with numerous students, faculty members, and staff and soon was adored by all.

Bill was particularly blessed with special people in Iowa City: Barry Morrow; Tom Walz; Mae Driscoll, owner of his boarding house; and John Cane, a university faculty member. Rabbi Portman, who also served as Bill's guardian, encouraged Bill to have his Bar Mitzvah at age 66. These everyday heroes were determined to help Bill become all he could be. This is truly a magical story of love, devotion, community, and the connection between a special man and the people who loved and supported him.

Ms. Slade is manager of the partial hospital and chemical dependence programs and the psychiatric emergency services at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.




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