U-I logo for the workshop.

A coffee shop created nearly five decades ago to provide work for an Iowa City man with disabilities is changing with the times.

Jen Knights is part of the University of Iowa’s School of Social Work, and says they’ve decided to transition “Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop” to “Wild Bill’s Workshop.”

“At the time that it was set up back in 1975 there was a crucial need for students getting educated to become social workers to have an opportunity to interact with people who had disabilities,” Knights says, “Because at that time they had really be isolated from the rest of society for many, many years.”

The coffee shop was named for Bill Sackter, who had spent years in a mental institution. His story by his guardian Barry Morrow eventually gained national recognition in an Emmy-winning 1981 TV movie.

“Mickey Rooney starred as Bill and Dennis Quaid was the actor who play Barry Morrow. And it really did make a difference,” according to Knights. “Before then in the movies, people with disabilities had not been portrayed as real people or fully realized characters. They were typically used as comic relief, or made fun of or portrayed as villains or dangerous somehow or as a threat.”

She says the movie showed how things could be. “Being affectionate and emphatic about the real life of a real man who matters who also had a disability, was just something that people hadn’t seen before. It really shifted perspective for a lot of Americans who saw that story,” Knights says.

Knights says several things brought on the coffee shop change, including a proliferation now of coffee shops in Iowa City, and a fuller integration of people with disabilities into society. “And although Wild Bill’s is still a favorite place of employment for many of the folks in our community — we are just not needed as an employer the way that we once were,” she explains. “And what is going to replace it then is just a greater understanding, a greater emphasis on clinical social work education for these students who are going to be interacting with people with social disabilities.”

Knights says the new workshop and classroom will reach more of the students. “We do also have programs in Sioux City, Des Moines, and the Quad Cities. But of course, because the coffee shop was such a site-specific thing, those students didn’t interact with the coffee shop quite as much as we hoped they might be able to interact with the workshop,” she says.

The change includes adding a dedicated studio space to produce multimedia presentations. She says they do have a new podcast called ‘Wild Bill’s Social Justice Podcast’, which is one of the iterations of the studio space. Knights says the podcast will tell more of Wild Bill’s story and the things they are going to be doing moving forward. Knights says the workshop will carry on Bill’s legacy and even be open more hours for meetings, study space, and other events whenever classes are not being held in the space. Sackter died in 1983.