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Lane Wyrick with a photo of Bill Sackter in the background
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LANE WYRICK An alumnus and filmmaker documents the life of a local hero who showed the world another view of disability

Lane Wyrick never met Bill Sackter, the unlikely University of Iowa celebrity who helped change people’s views of disability. But over the past seven years, Wyrick has come to see how an unassuming man who played harmonica and sold coffee could make such an impact.

Wyrick recently completed a documentary feature titled A Friend Indeed—The Bill Sackter Story. Constructed from archival film, video, and photographs, and interviews with people who knew Sackter, the documentary debuts June 7 with a world premiere at Hancher Auditorium on the UI campus.

“For me, this project was like an archeological dig,” says Wyrick, recounting fortuitous discoveries like finding a tape recording of Sackter’s 1983 funeral among a box of old course materials. The result is funny and moving, nostalgic and timeless, local and universal—an inspirational tribute to Sackter and the community where he found a home.

Wyrick grew up in Iowa City and studied film production at the University. After graduation, he worked four years in Los Angeles before deciding to return to Iowa, start his own business, and tell the stories he wanted to.

One of his first such projects was a documentary short about UI professor emeritus Mauricio Lasansky and his Nazi Drawings series. At a Los Angeles screening of the film, Wyrick met Academy Award winning writer and producer Barry Morrow, who encouraged him to make Sackter’s story his next focus.

“I felt Lane had not only the talent, but the right sensibilities for this project,” Morrow says. “To have a friendship with Bill required a lot of work and love, and the task of telling his life story properly would be no different. It takes sweat and heart and a large dose of patience. Lane embraced all that.”

Bill SackterBorn in 1913, Sackter spent 44 years in a Minnesota institution for the mentally disabled. After being released to a halfway house, he struck up a friendship with Morrow, a college student who’d eventually become Sackter’s guardian.

Morrow, his wife, Bev, and their two small children brought Sackter to Iowa when Morrow took a job at the UI School of Social Work. Tom Walz, then director of the social work program, hired Sackter as a handyman, but Sackter found his calling selling coffee to students and faculty members—an enterprise that became known as Wild Bill’s Coffeehouse.

Bill Sackter holding a small child.In 1976, Sackter was named Handicapped Iowan of the Year, and his story began to spread. President Jimmy Carter invited him to Washington, D.C., in 1979, and two TV movies starring Mickey Rooney—Bill and Bill: On His Own, based on stories by Morrow—introduced Sackter to the world.

“I had seen the Bill movies, but the real Bill was an entirely different person than the one Mickey Rooney played,” Wyrick says. Making the film introduced Wyrick not only to his subject, but also to the challenges of making a full-length documentary on a limited budget, then finding ways to share it with audiences. He’s currently entering “A Friend Indeed” into festivals and considering other avenues for distribution.

“Telling real stories has become what I do,” Wyrick says. His company, Xap Interactive, lets him balance personal projects with other work that helps pay the bills, particularly medical and surgical videos for clients across the country.

Walz’s Extend the Dream Foundation, which supports initiatives that let people with disabilities become self-sufficient, helped arrange funding for the Sackter project, and friends throughout the University and Iowa City communities have embraced the film as a means to extend Sackter’s legacy.

The project has brought the story of Sackter and the lives he touched full circle. Morrow had approached Wyrick’s father, Darrell Wyrick, then president of the University of Iowa Foundation, about funding a Sackter documentary in the 1970s, but the project instead became the Bill movies. The original Bill movie also premiered at Hancher, and the new film comes 25 years after Sackter’s death.

“The best compliment I get comes from people who’ve seen the film and tell me that I got it right, that the real Bill comes through,” Wyrick says. Also rewarding is the chance to tell a hometown story with universal appeal.

“The culture here allowed Bill to flourish, and that alone makes me proud,” Wyrick says. “But I really wanted to examine themes of friendship and compassion. How many of us would take a stranger who’d spent his life in an institution into our homes? How many of us would imagine that in doing so, we’d change so many lives?”

Story by Lin Larson; Portrait by Tom Jorgensen; Bill Sackter photo by Barry Morrow

May 27, 2008