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Tom Walz stands at the counter in Uptown Bill's Cafe.
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TOM WALZ Forget retirement—the longtime professor's quest to help people with disabilities stay self-sufficient keeps him busier than ever.

Not many people can say they finished their doctoral degree in a year. Tom Walz, however, is used to high-speed living, and retirement hasn't slowed him down.

Walz served as the Peace Corps director in Honduras at 29. At 39, he was named the director of the UI School of Social Work, a post he held for five years. More recently, Walz has created nine businesses owned and operated by disabled people and volunteers. But he still takes time to shoot hoops Monday nights—even though his knees are giving out.

"This is the most work I've done in my life," Walz says of projects developed through the Extend the Dream Foundation (EDF), which he's directed since 1999. "It's very demanding because it involves working with folks who may have fragile bodies and fragile minds, limited income, and little experience in running a business."

Walz started Uptown Bill's Small Mall, which housed a coffee shop, tearoom, used bookstore, and antique store, a year after his 2001 retirement. Located at 401 South Gilbert Street in Iowa City, the Small Mall is named after Bill Sackter, the late friend of Walz's who became a local celebrity and the subject of two TV movies.

Thanks to his work at the Small Mall, Walz was a finalist for the inaugural Volvo For Life Awards and was inducted into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame in 2002. He also was named a Purpose Prize Fellow in 2006.

In addition to the Small Mall businesses, Walz has partnered with others to start a framing shop, a book publishing business, and an online training program that helps persons with disabilities learn to trade on the Internet. The latter recently received a $47,000 grant from Hewlett-Packard.

Why does Walz pull eighty-hour weeks when most people would rather be reaping the rewards of their younger years?

"I believe in what I do. It's interesting. It's never boring. I could write a book every day about what goes on," he says. "This is the way I want to die—keep going until my legs don't do it anymore. And when my head gets fuzzy, hopefully, I can disappear."

Walz came by his life philosophy the hard way, growing up poor during the Great Depression. The experience, combined with his belief of the Catholic code of service and social action, convinced him he should work to make life better for others. His ethic also draws on Mahatma Gandhi's teachings, which he discovered while spending several months at a university Gandhi founded in Ahmedabad, India.

"Most of the kids I grew up with were destined for factory work, something I had hoped to avoid. Yet, I had always worked in some form of physical labor," he says, explaining why he became an academic who appreciates working with his hands. "That's why at 74 I can spend my morning hauling up furniture to an old person's apartment."

Over the span of his UI career, Walz was instrumental in founding the University's gerontology program and another program that laid the groundwork for the National Resource Center for Family Centered Practice. He also led a summer seminar in Central America for students and community leaders, and directed the University's off-campus social work master's program in Des Moines.

While director of the School of Social Work, Walz helped Bill Sackter start a business that became Wild Bill's Coffee Shop, a service-learning project at the school's home in North Hall.

Walz describes Sackter—who'd spent almost 50 years in a mental institution before building a new life in Iowa City—using the Gandhian concept of ahimsa. He says Sackter had the ability to love unconditionally and the natural ability to not harm anything.

"Bill was a remarkably spiritually developed human being. Totally unassuming, totally unaware of it, which made it beautiful," Walz says.

Those who pass through the Small Mall's halls may have never met Sackter, who died in 1983, but Walz and others are making sure his legacy lives on. Recently, EDF commissioned an Emmy-award-winning Iowa City filmmaker to shoot a 90-minute documentary submitted to film festivals around the country.

"I'd like to make Bill part of American culture or folklore," Walz says. "The Small Mall and all this stuff is just a way of telling the Bill story."

Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

Jan. 28, 2008