On June 23rd, longtime homeless man Bill Walton passed away at age 69. He spent many of his last days on the steps on the Independent Media Center.
Upon thinking of the passing of Bill this week, one of Bill’s great contributions to our community was that he stood patiently in all kinds of weather to be a reality check. Bill’s daily presence was a constant reminder that there are those in this world who are less fortunate than most of us. From day one in front of Busey Bank in the 80’s, it seemed Bill needed help. Or it always looked that way.
The sight of Bill either opened up your mind to the idea of compassion, or offended your work-ethic sensibilities. Either way, you were grateful for your own situation. Living on the sidewalk day after day had to be sometimes miserable.
Looking at Bill, your priorities were challenged. Questions about your government, the effects of war, the economy, homeless people, what Jesus said about the poor, property rights, welfare, poverty, unemployment, your sense of decency, healthcare, and mental illness were inspired by his chaotic sight, day after day.
Bill could alter your sense of reality. Not everybody was having a nice day. Bill forced you to decide how you would react to that.
There were many days Bill seemed in mental anguish about something. We have to admit, hardly any of us took the time to find out. Bill, often favoring a military jacket, could be intimidating at first. It was a relief to discover, if you took the time, Bill was a nice man.
Most of us assessed Bill’s plight as a financial one. Turns out, money was not Bill’s problem.
So why did he sit outside all that time? We can throw some psychology-sounding labels at him and blame his faulty brain that caused his vigil. Sounds reasonable to us and less incriminating.
Anyone who ever interacted with Bill Walton can honestly say, Bill was always polite, cogent, and as patient as anyone could be under the extraordinary circumstances of being outside all hours. His only vice seemed to be chain smoking.
And yet, he did it. He stood or sat in the most prominent places in town in front of everybody and didn’t give a damn what you thought about it or what he looked like; and at the same time, he somehow tolerated doing nothing all day.
A sign of mental illness perhaps?
Bill’s behavior was fairly mild mannered, fairly consistent. Bill graduated from high school, played in the high school band, joined the Army, and went to the University of Montana to study Biology. Like most children and young adults he loved his parents, his siblings, and had friends. This was a very capable person who, for unknown reasons, completely dropped out, and sat waiting and not much else.
And just about all of us walked around it and let it be.
This article originally appeared at Smile Politely and is reprinted with permission.