Jim Dey: A twisting, turning journey of homelessness, mental illness

Jim Dey: A twisting, turning journey of homelessness, mental illness

Bill Walton — a homeless man who lived on the streets of downtown Urbana for decades — died June 23 in hospice care. His death, according to lifetime friend William Weisiger, came "10 days after his 69th birthday."

Depending on people's perspectives, Walton was either a symbol of freedom from the traditional worries of life or a tragic example of the individual agony and public indifference engendered by mental illness. The reality, however, was that Walton became a permanent fixture on the streets of downtown Urbana, taking shelter variously at the old post office, Lincoln Square and the city building, politely accepting gifts of food and money from strangers.

Weisiger, a retired businessman who was Walton's court-appointed caretaker, said his friend's passing was "definitely a relief." He said Walton was diagnosed in April with colon cancer and that his final months included at least two surgeries, painful treatments and, finally, a fall and broken hip.

"I'm happy he's no longer in pain. He was asleep, and then he just died," said Weisiger, who grew up next door to the Walton family in Urbana.

Walton's life on the streets of Urbana came to an end in 2011 when Mayor Laurel Prussing decided the time had come to move him to safer, more hospitable surroundings.

She enlisted the assistance of the Family Services Senior Resource Center, which sought a court appointment of a legal guardian. Two volunteer lawyers, Debra Feinen, recently elected mayor of Champaign, and Andrew Bequette of Urbana were recruited to handle each side of the litigation.

Ultimately, Associate Judge Bryan McPheters, acting in response to a mental and physical examination of Walton, appointed Weisiger as his guardian in September 2011, and Walton, a U.S. Army veteran, was moved to the veteran's hospital in Danville and then to Amber Glen in Urbana. In the last few months of his life, Walton resided at the Illini Heritage Nursing Home in Champaign.

Ironies abound in this heart-rending story of a life lost in the fog of mental illness.

With his mountain-man appearance — he dressed in ragged clothing and had wild, long hair and an unkempt beard — came the legend of Bill Walton. (The cleaned-up version of Bill Walton — haircut, a shave and fresh clothing — was unrecognizable.) Some speculated he was a former University of Illinois graduate student who was driven mad by the pressures of academe.

Others saw him as a free spirit who lived happily by his own rules. Those who subscribed to that misguided theory expressed outrage when city officials decided it was time that someone other than Bill Walton needed to take care of Bill Walton.

The truth wasn't nearly so romantic.

By the time the court intervened, Walton was suffering from congestive heart failure and a seizure condition. He also was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition that had plagued him for years. He was able to speak in a coherent fashion on a limited basis.

Asked by a reporter about his new digs at the veteran's hospital, Walton said, "They treat me pretty good. I like having a roof over my head."

At the same time, he said he didn't recall the many months he spent sleeping in front of the police window at the Urbana City Building. One thing Walton said he definitely missed was not being allowed to smoke the cigarettes he had enjoyed for years living on his own.

Other than that, however, his speech was nonsensical, focusing on the themes of his schizophrenia.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that Walton, who relied on the kindness of strangers to survive, maintained an investment portfolio in his final years and leaves an estate, even though he leaves no will.

Walton's finances resulted from years of uncollected Social Security disability checks.

Weisiger said that after he was appointed to handle Walton's affairs, he learned that Social Security had stopped sending checks to Walton after so many were returned uncollected. With considerable help from former U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, one of Walton's and Weisiger's classmates from the Urbana High School Class of 1964, Weisiger was able to persuade Social Security to pay in one lump the money Walton would otherwise have collected — roughly $225,000.

Weisiger said he used that cash pile to pay Walton's roughly $5,000 per month in nursing home expenses and invested the rest.

"As the (stock) market went up, so were his investments," Weisiger said. "He's going to have an estate, believe it or not. It's really funny."

Walton has two sisters, both of whom live out of the state. His father, a physician who is no longer living, was the head of the anesthesiology department of Carle Hospital. His mother also is deceased. Weisiger said one of the traumatic events of Walton's childhood was returning home one day to find his mother dead.

He attended the University of Montana for several years, also serving with the U.S. Army in Germany. Weisiger described him as a "tank mechanic" who "knew how to fix stuff."

By the time he returned home to Urbana for good, however, Weisiger said his friend was clearly suffering from a mental illness that made him both unemployable and resistant to any efforts to help him.

Thus began his multi-decade journey as a homeless man who everybody saw but few gave much thought.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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billbtri5 wrote on June 30, 2015 at 8:06 am

i remember seeing him outside on the coldest of days..

dlgreen50 wrote on June 30, 2015 at 9:06 am

"Others saw him as a free spirit who lived happily by his own rules. Those who subscribed to that misguided theory expressed outrage when city officials decided it was time that someone other than Bill Walton needed to take care of Bill Walton." I would be interested to know if Dey has any actual evidence that support this characterization. Dey has an axe to grind against non-conformists, but I doubt that among those individuals there is anyone who could not recognize Walton's sad and wretched state, as I did each week when I walked into the Urbana City Building. Instead, these are probably the same "free spirit" individuals that would support humane services for the homeless, not to mention a government-supported end to homelessness period. Ironically, Dey would of course oppose such policies, and excoriate those of us who advocate for such fanciful things when our government is "broke." But when you've got an axe grind, you have to grind it all the time, even when you contradict yourself; if you're Jim Dey, you just can't help it. Dey's world is a cartoon; just not a very funny one. - David Green

Joe American wrote on June 30, 2015 at 10:06 am

Sad and wretched state?  Wow.

Had you ever spent even a minute to exchange words with him instead of, perhaps, putting too much time into hating on journalists who may not report the news to your elite liking, then maybe you'd have an altogether different characterization of Bill.  Although few with words, he'd greet anyone who first greeted him.

I still miss him.

SaintClarence27 wrote on July 01, 2015 at 8:07 pm

Since when is Jim Dey a journalist?

David Green wrote on June 30, 2015 at 1:06 pm

I forgot to mention that Dey also opposes the universal medical and mental health services that are needed by some part of the homeless population, and obviously by Mr. Walton. There is no reason to romanticize mental illness. He deserved better than to be seen as an object of the tolerance and charity of those in a society with the means to help him.

mrseeu2 wrote on June 30, 2015 at 10:06 am

I always wondered what had happened to him.  I use to see him all the time.  RIP Bill.  Thanks for this story.

bluesky wrote on June 30, 2015 at 10:06 am

He was a part of our community, even as he lived on its margins.  And the community accomodated him, and tried to find the right balance between freedom and intervention.  I am glad that he had care and company at the end of his life. 

Local Yocal wrote on June 30, 2015 at 2:06 pm
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When you have an axe to grind, your reading comprehension must go out the window. Dey refers to an article that was published in Smilepolitely back in 2011 and Dey's assertion that, "Others saw him as a free spirit who lived happily by his own rules. Those who subscribed to that misguided theory expressed outrage when city officials decided it was time that someone other than Bill Walton needed to take care of Bill Walton." is cherry picking from the article to dismiss another view.

The article stated, "Bill, now 65 year 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." 

The outrage the writer expressed in the article was over the suspicion that then-attorney Deb Feinen declared his assets to be zero when she knew he had a substantial inheritance from his father and now we see Bill also had a large sum due from Social Security. And as has happened, shoving Bill into a nursing home became a $5000 a month drain on his inheritance. The "help" became somebody's paycheck.

Weisiger may think it's "funny" Bill has an estate, but it was an estate known to exist well in advance and will probably be seized by those who robbed Bill of his freedom to drink a cup of joe at the mall and have a damn cigarette. It still remains suspect that those deciding to finally intervene on Bill did so to control that large amount of money he had. 

Here is the article referred to:  http://www.smilepolitely.com/opinion/the_end_is_near/

LynnBrownBey wrote on June 30, 2015 at 5:06 pm

 I remember seeing him everywhere, but mostly in the summer. I would give him money everytime I seen him. After awhile he started giving me things in return like earrings, a coin he had found or i assumed he had found. The very last time I saw him he was in a Mc Donald's. He bought my lunch. I always wondered what had happend to him. Make he rest in peace at last. 

mgd wrote on June 30, 2015 at 5:06 pm

May we all contribute to find a cure for schizophrenia. Several of my friends, all male, from high school and my family's friends have become schizoprenic in their late teens and twenties. 

We all need to help the sufferers and their families to find hope and help for those with this terrible disease/condition.

I did not know him, but am infinitely sad for him and I honor his memory.

Mary Gates DeRosier 

mgd wrote on June 30, 2015 at 5:06 pm

May we all contribute to find a cure for schizophrenia. Several of my friends, all male, from high school and my family's friends have become schizoprenic in their late teens and twenties. 

We all need to help the sufferers and their families to find hope and help for those with this terrible disease/condition.

I did not know him, but am infinitely sad for him and I honor his memory.

Mary Gates DeRosier 

Galina Coton wrote on June 30, 2015 at 8:06 pm
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He spent many hours in the old Steak N Shakes in town. I wondered what ever happened to him. He always carried his old sleeping bag around everywhere. He had also lost a lot of weight over the last few years. Until we meet again R.I.P. Bill.

cwdog57 wrote on June 30, 2015 at 9:06 pm

rip bill and kuddos to his friend william wiesiger of whom i know personally as an honorable man and friend to this man. as a society we don't accept these people and treat them as "disposable humans" easily discarded and hidden from view rather then deal with their idiosyncrasies. they have rights you know.

RLW wrote on July 01, 2015 at 2:07 am

 The first time I seen him I was scared because of how he looked. But one day I ended up walking next to him and we talked a little. He seemed like a nice guy who was just down on his luck. I was really broke back then but I had some popcorn from Huey's and asked him if he wanted it and he said yes.

 R.I.P. Bill

Sid Saltfork wrote on July 01, 2015 at 4:07 pm

I first met him back in the early 70's.  He was animated about a city sign on 6th, and Green.  He waved his arm backward, and smacked an off-duty Champaign police officer.  It so happened that the officer, and I were going to the same baber shop on 6th street.  This was before cell phones.  The officer asked to use the barber shop's phone to call in, and have Bill arrested.  I objected to it.  The barbers, and their customers agreed.  After that, I saw Bill in the Urbana Parking across from the courthouse until a few years ago.  May he rest in peace.

This story is about Bill; but there are many, many more Bills out there now.

Local Yocal wrote on July 02, 2015 at 6:07 pm
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Bystander wrote on July 06, 2015 at 7:07 pm
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Bill was always out there, rain or shine. Amazing. 

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