Smile Politely

The end is near

[Author’s Note: the assumptions and speculations contained in this article are not to be considered actually accurate]

We walk by him every day. Every day for years. Every day for decades.”Bill,” as he’s been called, has been sitting or standing outdoors on campus, or in front of the downtown Urbana post office, or inside Lincoln Square Village, or lately inside the Urbana Municipal Building, in front of everyone, every day, rain or shine, since 1982 us locals can nearly remember.

That’s almost 30 years. Every day, for all of this time, Bill has sat quietly by himself in the most prominent places in town, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, apparently doing nothing, every day of the week, of every year.

He talks to no one unless spoken to. He never panhandles for money. He drinks no alcohol nor uses any recreational drugs. Bill has never been charged with a criminal offense. For the last 30 years, he seems to have read no books. He listens to no radio or music devices. He watches no television. I’ve never seen Bill writing or drawing on a piece of paper. I’ve only seen Bill read a newspaper once in 30 years. He has never been married that anyone is aware and has no children. He has never owned a cellphone, and I’ve never seen him use a pay phone. He probably has never been to an Illini game, never been to a concert or gone to the movies, never been inside any of the bars around town. Needless to say, during these 30 years, Bill has never held a job, owned a place to live, owned or driven a car, paid property taxes, or voted in our elections. I’ve never seen him use a computer, watch a DVD, play a CD or a video game.

Bill’s only activities seem to be smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, eating an occasional meal, hobbling to a convenience store to buy his cigarettes, and always he returns to his sitting, waiting, looking — for over 30 years.

“As you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”
— Matthew 25:40

His stoic presence was a stark contrast to the usual hustle and bustle of Campustown. His quietness I found intimidating. His seated position on the ground while people walked around him seemed pitiful. The constant ignoring and annoyance by passersby looked lonely. I would usually stand afar and stare at him wondering what it was he was doing. Bill struck me as the kind of guy who would be holding the prophetic, “The End is near!” sign. The difference from the deranged zealot might be that Bill actually knew the End was near. It was hard to say what Bill knew. Bill rarely talked. If you did approach him, to maybe offer him a dollar or two, his electric blue eyes burned right through you. He would reach for your money and quietly, almost sheepishly, thank you profusely, like he had received a gift from the president, bowing his head in gratitude.

It’s hard to tell what Bill thinks about. Clearly, he is engaged in thought, though there is little record of what those thoughts are. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing was recently quoted that she finds Bill “quite intelligent.” Sometimes you see him talking to himself under his breath. A few years back I sat down next to Bill on a public bench and asked him, almost in exasperation in order to solve the mystery, “Bill, what do you think about all day?” He looked away from me, telling nothing, like a teacher dismayed that I didn’t already know the answer. I was left feeling rude for even prying.

His consciousness seems different than most of ours, since he has not participated in the usual earthly pursuits of money, education, toys, fixing up a house, friends and family, distractions and amusements. His world is the weather, the trees and flowers, the sidewalks and streets, the birds and squirrels, the buildings and its people — few he has ever called by name. Bill lives in the here and now, in real time, in real space, without a schedule. I asked Bill a couple years back, how it was going, more as a cheerful greeting than a serious inquiry, and he answered, “Good! I’m going to Heaven,” as he pointed to the sky.

Bill is often written off as crazy. But unlike the truly crazed, he seldom drifts off into his own universe, oblivious to the people around him. When you walk by him, he looks at you in no particular way. Confronting him, you must confront yourself and have that conversation with yourself beforehand, planning what you are going to do when your eyes meet. Will you walk by and ignore him, or will you somehow greet his presence? Will you waste your little money by giving it to one of Scott Cochrane’s establishments, or will you give some to Bill who probably needs it? The decisions to be made can be irritating, and sometimes I have walked a different route to avoid him. It requires a complete fabrication on my part to rationalize that my discomfort is somehow Bill’s fault. He was just sitting there, never asking anything of anybody.

I once wintered at the men’s emergency shelter on campus, and Bill was always the last to arrive late in the evening. He would limp in, seemingly exhausted, his sleeping bag rolled up under one arm, his plastic bags of unknown stuff he carried in the other. The residents of the shelter that year were mostly refugees from the Department of Corrections trying to rebuild, or stranded travelers from a distant city trying to get started. Many were rowdy alcoholics and drug addicts, a few were habitual thieves, and fewer still were snitches working for the police. Bill spoke to no one and had a special spot near the door that no one would claim. In fact, no one bothered Bill that I could see. Whether out of fear of a terrific mental illness or a spiritual authority as if he was Thor, God of Thunder, no one at the shelter dared to disturb Bill’s constant solitude. Early in the morning, Bill would be the first to leave the shelter, resuming his vigil next to a bank on campus.

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31–33

Wherever Bill has gone, doors for everyone have eventually opened. Legend has it that Bill, along with other homeless men, began to frequent the McKinley Presbyterian Church, when the church decided to host an open coffee shop for the public in its basement. Raggedy Bill would always show up for a cup of joe. Some in the church thought Bill’s presence was unseemly and maybe he should be asked to leave. For others, Bill’s “imposition” demonstrated a need for a place where the homeless can go. Thanks partly to Bill, the McKinley Men’s Emergency Winter Shelter was born, and operated there for over 15 years, housing 40–60 men per night during the winter months.

In the mid-nineties, Bill left Campustown and it’s not known why.

The McKinley Church had decided that 15 years were enough and informed the City of Champaign that it would no longer be host to the shelter. Some in the city, led by then-city council members Jerry Schweighart and Maggie Mattingly, seized the “opportunity” to declare that if Champaign didn’t have a shelter, the homeless would leave, and the problems of poverty would be solved. The experience of having the McKinley shelter was far too important, however, and then-Champaign Police Chief Don Carter warned city leaders that it wouldn’t be wise to be without a shelter — or else, where are these people going to go? The police station?

Officials coughed up the $300,000 and built a new emergency shelter in downtown Champaign, now known as the TIMES Center. (A disappointed Schweighart thought it would have been better if the new shelter had been placed on the outskirts of town, like, north of Anthony Drive or Rantoul.)

Instead of following the rest of the indigents to the west, Bill headed east and parked himself in front of the Post Office in Urbana. Ten years later, the Urbana Post Office became an arts and media community center open to the public. In 2009, owners of Lincoln Square Village tried to ban Bill from the mall, claiming he was disruptive for business. Tenants of the mall were so outraged that the ban was quietly forgotten. Bill, as do a few other homeless people, still frequents the mall to this day.

It’s tempting to think that for the past three decades Bill has lived alone in his own world. And yet at the same time, Bill chooses never to be alone. Every day Bill chooses to be among people. A loner would live up on the tracks or in the woods. Bill prefers to live with us, or at least in front of us.

He does not stay with the group because of our stuff. It’s amazing he’s survived this long without ever asking for hand-outs. Without ever doing much to preserve himself, other than be polite to other people when they talk at him and get out of the bad weather, 30 years have gone by. Somehow, every day he inspires in someone just enough spontaneous generosity for him to live. Sometimes he accepts a gift graciously and sometimes he refuses graciously. Bill’s long survival stands as a living landmark to the community’s collective compassion to help him and/or let him be. He could have starved to death in the first few months of 1982, but he didn’t, and never does, thanks to what his presence brings out in us. Of course, Bill’s unique stubbornness to always be around forced the equation.

Bill’s nighttime encampment in the Urbana Municipal Building has been ridiculous for its bravery and genius. Brave, because who else would dare to set up camp, say, on the floor of the Champaign Police Station? Genius, for where else is there a safer place to sleep for a man without shelter but under the nose of the police, who Urbana’s Mayor Prussing described recently as Bill’s “best friends”? It’s a wonder how Bill has been able to invent civil liberties to occupy a public building his sales taxes helped build. Hundreds of Wisconsin protesters were barely able to pull that off. Bill’s need and innocence has allowed it. We may scoff at the notion that Bill is a political revolutionary, but as one long-time observer recently noted, “Bill has enjoyed favored status among the homeless for a long time. There is no one like him.”


But now, in the year 2011, on July 16 to be precise, an ominous cloud has appeared over the horizon of Bill’s humble existence. It came in the way of a News-Gazette column, authored by Jim Dey, entitled, “It’s not exactly The Waltons at City Hall.” According to Dey, the city had been trying for months to find Bill a place to stay but Bill’s mental illness leaves him unable to cooperate. The tale contains many half-truths and kind sentiments but questions arise: Bill’s been sleeping on the floor in that building for the last three years; his condition has been more or less the same for the last 20; and now, all of a sudden, we are supposed to believe that the City staff is concerned for his welfare? Why now? And it’s Bill’s fault for refusing this help? What kind of help is he refusing?

A childhood neighbor of Bill’s family, who has been looking out for Bill on and off since the ’80s, says that the city’s efforts to remove Bill from the front foyer started when Mayor Prussing convened two meetings of social service providers and city officials in the winter of 2009. The meetings were in response to a few Lincoln Square merchants complaining to the mayor about Bill’s presence, and also because employees in the Urbana City Building had presented the mayor with a petition asking for Bill’s removal from the hallway due to his messes in the bathroom. The family friend said she notified Bill’s family about the bathroom problem, and they offered to pay the city for the extra clean-up required. The city refused the offer.

The meetings were intended to find Bill lodging and services. Prussing, then-Police Chief Mike Bily, former City Attorney Ron O’Neal, and representatives from several social service agencies, including the Salvation Army and the TIMES Center all scratched their heads on how to put Bill back together again. It was agreed that Bill would be transported to the emergency room as needed, and while he was there, they would try to evaluate his psychiatric condition. The Mental Health Center offered to meet with Bill informally as well. The family friend is not sure if this ever materialized.

A search for housing was launched, with the Mayor herself canvassing for a residence for Bill, but no place was found. City Attorney O’Neal later found Bill an apartment in the government housing unit south of Lincoln Square. The family friend speculates that because Bill did not receive government benefits, this apartment vanished as well. It’s unclear if Bill was ever consulted about any of these ideas.

Bill’s only family are two sisters who live far away. They have been contacted and have indicated that they are not able to be Bill’s legal guardians. Years back, one of the sisters contacted a local lawyer to obtain for Bill government benefits so that he could get a place. For health reasons, the lawyer was unable to complete the paperwork and it seems that Bill’s birth certificate and military discharge papers (the family friend recalls that he was honorably discharged) have been lost at the law office. To this day, Bill does not receive veterans pay or Social Security.

Now the City of Urbana has enlisted the services of the Family Service Senior Resource Center to seek a “medical” evaluation and permanent guardianship for Bill. Those aren’t bad ideas. Urbana Police Lt. Robert Fitzgerald told Dey that Bill “will sometimes have a seizure in the city building.” Lucky for Bill, he was in a police station when his seizures occurred and paramedics don’t have far to drive to get to the nearest hospital. Mayor Prussing told Dey, “[Allowing him to stay in the City Building] is for his safety.” Many have noticed that Bill returns from two-to-three week absences with hospital bracelets on his wrists. Bill’s choice for a place to sleep may be what saved his life numerous times.

No one disputes that Bill sometimes needs medical attention. He has lost weight in recent years. His gait has slowed, and I have noticed that his breathing has become more labored. Thirty years of living directly on the streets, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee every day probably has to take its toll on the strongest of men. Even so, upon every release from the hospital, Bill returns to his usual routine — including taking up residence back at the City Building. Bill, now 65 years old, could benefit from someone looking after his interests, especially as he enters his golden years. Getting him some regular medical attention, securing him some entitled funds, and assigning someone to check on him from time to time should have happened years ago.

It’s suspicious whether recent legal efforts are about doing what’s best for Bill. Reading Dey’s July 16 article, the real deal emerges: when Bill cleans himself in the public bathroom at the City Building, he leaves the bathroom “a mess.” When he leaves his possessions lying on the floor, they smell. The Mayor is quoted, “Some people don’t like it …,” leaving Dey to conclude, “…neither city employees nor visitors to city hall are completely comfortable with him.” The sudden effort to “help” Bill (compel his cooperation legally) seems to be an effort to stop his sleeping at the City Building — and to gain control of any money that Bill may have and make decisions over his living arrangements.

To do that, Judge Brian McPheters will review the medical reports and hear testimony from those that know Bill to determine whether he is disabled to the extent that he “lacks sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate responsible decisions concerning the care of his person,” due to either, “mental deterioration or physical incapacity.” Bill is weak to be sure. And yet, we see him eat, sleep, and take care of his nerves with his cigarettes; and he will retreat inside the Lincoln Square Village or City Building during inclement weather given the chance. With little money, little interaction with people, and few accommodations for his plight (the shelter is overcrowded, smelly, and sometimes dangerous), Bill does his best to stay alive and stay with us. Nonetheless, he stands accused of being irresponsible toward his own care.

Despite Bill having a history with doctors at Carle Clinic who would be familiar with his condition, Attorney Deb Feinen insisted the medical examination be conducted by doctors in Danville. The City was willing to splurge the taxpayer dollars to have Urbana police officers drive Bill over to Danville. Why? Maybe they know that if Bill is seen at Carle and then released, he’ll just wander back over to the City Building. Sure enough, the medical exam has become a five-day stay as of this writing. The “medical” evaluation will not be just a physical exam; it will be a psychiatric one as well. Bill stands no chance at getting a clean bill of health in that realm. Bill is probably one of the most emotionally stable persons on the planet given his level of discomfort; even so, his cryptic language and odd ideas are likely to ring psychotic to a second-rate VA psychiatrist. Chances are good that Bill will be considered disabled and in need of a guardian. The question becomes, who will be the guardian?

Since Bill’s two sisters live too far away, it’s unknown who else could be Bill’s guardian. The court appointed guardian is entrusted to “assist the ward in the development of maximum self-reliance and independence,” according to state law. If Bill doesn’t select someone, or there are no other capable choices to come forward, the court can appoint the Public Guardian for Champaign County for people with estates over $25,000 or the State Guardian for wards that have less than $25,000 in assets. Only Public Guardians and State Guardians can petition the court to place the ward in a residential facility against the ward’s choice, like a VA hospital. Attorney Feinen’s July 5th petition for a permanent guardian declares Bill’s estate to be valued at $0.00. Strangely, her petition also requests that the court assign the Public Guardian, Joe Brown, to be made permanent guardian over Bill when, by law, Feinen should be requesting the State Guardian for a man with no assets.

Since Bill’s dad was head of the anesthesiology department at Carle Clinic, it’s possible that Bill owns a significant amount of money, and that could be incentive to shove Bill somewhere far away, and gain control of his birthright.

Similar to Richard Lemke’s campsite on a park bench next to the clock in downtown Champaign in the early ’90s, Aretha’s lugging of winter coats everywhere in downtown Champaign between the ’70s to the 2000s, and more recently, Margaret Freeman’s incessant panhandling of two dollars for cigarettes from cafe-goers in the newly renovated downtown Champaign — all of whom were the subject of enormous pressure “to do something about them” — Bill’s vulnerability gives the city employees the chance to finally rid themselves of the “unsightly” mess in the front foyer that is Bill. Champaign-Urbana’s history with the issue of homelessness has been one of containment. You can be poor in this city, just be sure to do it over there, out of the way, out of sight. For whatever reason and in his own quiet and decent way, Bill has refused to play that game. The City of Urbana may have grown weary with Bill, but it has been an extraordinary run to let Bill quietly occupy that front foyer. It gave the town some unique class, like a sign that read, “Welcome to Urbana. We Care. About Everybody.”

It’s a testament to Bill’s mild-mannered character that there has been an outpouring of concern in response to Dey’s articles. Some people in the community don’t agree that Bill should be locked up for just sleeping in the City Building and have begun to “correct” Dey’s earlier portrayal. To Dey’s credit, he has adjusted his narrative accordingly. After Dey’s July 23 article about Bill, the City of Urbana moved Bill out of the front foyer into the back foyer of the City Building. Bill is no longer the first thing you see when you visit the halls of government in Urbana.

The city’s complaint about Bill is not entirely unreasonable. Neither Bill nor the City should desire a public bedroom. You’d think if we can build a $160 million dollar addition to Memorial Stadium, we could just get him a room at $3 a day, and have someone clean the place up once a week. It would be a far cheaper option than the daily cost of housing him in the VA. His social security check could help pay for it. He qualifies for free medical care. There’s a cheaper way to give Bill a better life. Or maybe Bill already has the money for a better life, and somebody is preventing him from having it.


I approached Bill recently as he sat in the lobby of the City Building.

“Bill,” I said, “…did you know there was a hearing about you at the courthouse?”

“No, sir, I don’t. I don’t know anything about it,” he replied.

“Well,” I said, “do you know they may put you in a hospital?”

“I don’t give medical treatment, sir,” said Bill, refusing the offer to be a doctor.

I asked if he had ever been to Carle hospital and he said yes. I asked him if he remembered the name of his doctor, and he said, “Robinson.”

I then asked Bill if he knew where Danville is.

“Yes, it’s toward the Indiana side; the Wabash River is its water,” he replied.

I asked if he wanted to stay here in Urbana.

“Yes,” he said.

The attendant at the police station began to eye me with suspicion and leaned closer to the window to hear who it was who was speaking to Bill. Bill looked away from me and I grew nervous by the surveillance. I asked Bill if the staff at the city building have been treating him well. He replied, “I’m just waiting for a ride.”

“To where?” I asked.

“Lebanon,” he said. I assume he was referring to a town outside of St. Louis.

When I asked him who he wanted to see there, he said, “My father.”

I asked Bill if he reads the newspaper.

He formally replied, “I do not follow the daily edition, sir.”

I told him that there’s been some newspaper articles written about him and asked if he would like to see them.

“No,” he said quietly.

I asked him if he had enough cigarettes for now. He nodded yes, and looked up to me and asked with some measure of hope that I would be honest,

“Would you like one?”

I lied and said no, rationalizing that I don’t want to take from someone who has so little. Bill looks away from me again. Silence.

“Well, Bill, try to stay out of the heat,” I chirped.

“Too many bombs,” Bill answered, referring to the global warming effect war explosions have on the atmosphere.

“Uh,” I muttered trying to avoid the troubling image of bombs going off in Afghanistan, “Well, I just wanted to let you know what was going on.”

Bill mocked my avoidance of what was really going on with a sarcastic, “Anyway…”

There was another long silence between us. Then Bill looked quickly at me and turned away when he blurted, “I’m just waiting to go home.”

As I began to leave, Bill stuck out his hand to shake, and said, “Conversation,” giving me credit for what he’d received from me now.

As I grasped his hand, he said, “Have a good one,” perhaps referring to the cigarette I was on my way to hunt down.

It’s tragic irony that Bill’s enlistment to protect his country’s freedom as a young man may be used to draft him into confinement at a VA hospital as an old man. I am no better than the psychiatrists, lawyers, and guardians who may lock him up. Any failure to really know Bill has always been my fault — not his. It’s me who gets hung up on the appearances, and it’s me who gets afraid or offended by his abrupt way of telling the truth. Bill is just Bill. His sense of reality has always been superior to mine and I tended to avoid the glare of his light. To call him a schitzophrenic is a convenience, not a reality.

For many of us, Bill became another part of the landscape. He was always there, the same as yesterday, and we grew accustomed to his chaotic sight. We didn’t know much about him, and thanks to childhood friends recently stepping forward, we’ve learned that Bill was once one of us earthlings. He was a kid in the high school band from a prominent family, enlisted in the army with his buddies, enrolled in science courses many of us could barely pass. Because we didn’t bother to ask or he refused to say, something happened to his unique sensitivity that led him to drop out and wait. Those who have drawn near see his remarkable integrity and steadfastness despite the agony he has been willing to bear. He is more than just a category — “a homeless man” or “a vagrant.” He is a resident of Champaign-Urbana, a possible acquaintance and friend we’ve been too busy to meet, and, at times, that Bill has been unable to be. In stillness, Bill has waited patiently for things to get better.

I project onto him what little I saw: a soldier who stood his ground, held his post, refused to be shoved aside because he was “ugly,” and who treated everyone with kindness, every day, for 30 years. He is the co-founder of the emergency shelter system for the homeless in the Champaign-Urbana area, and did so while injured and hurting. In the hopefully far someday that Bill does go Home, a tribute sculpture should be commissioned of his likeness sitting somewhere with his stuff, sipping a cup of coffee. When future generations stand before his statue and ask, “What did this man do to help create shelters for homeless people,” we can say, “You’re looking at it. He wouldn’t be moved.”


Bill’s next hearing is today, Aug. 8, 2011 at 1:30 p.m. in Courtroom J. It is closed except to the media.

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