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Small town goes extra mile for Walkin’ Bill

SHARE Small town goes extra mile for Walkin’ Bill

Seventy-one-year-old Billy Sanderson is treated like a celebrity in this little northern Idaho logging town.

Stores charge him little or nothing for his small purchases. Truck drivers keep track of his whereabouts and offer rides when he'll take them. The last person in the bar at night makes sure he gets home.Residents also take care of his banking, do his laundry and make sure he eats regularly.

Sanderson, known to locals as Bovill Billy or Walkin' Bill, is mentally handicapped, has a quick temper, chronic anemia and a scalp condition.

But he's known for his other qualities by the town's 300 residents.

He is lean as a wisp of smoke, repeats himself relentlessly and walks with an unknown but cease-less purpose that has made him wear out a pair of shoes in a week.

And, most importantly, he has a huge heart.

That's why people look after him wherever he goes, whether it's Bovill, Elk River, Dreary, Troy or Clarkia.

When William Hamlett was Latah County prosecutor 25 years ago, he could rely on small towns to take care of people like Sander-son.

"As these communities became more sophisticated, they tend to look at these unfortunates as a social problem," Hamlett said.

"In the small town where you grew up, they served the purpose of reminding you how fortunate you were. They made you participate in acts of charity.

"You don't see that much anymore."

Dick Priebe takes Sanderson to the doctor, and his wife, Theresa, cuts his hair. Sanderson is a frequent overnight guest, and the Priebes include him on family outings and in their Christmas plans.

"Our highlight is to take Bill to new places he's never been," Theresa Priebe said.

One recent afternoon, a bunch of Sanderson's friends met and began talking about him. Two-and-a-half hours later, they were still telling stories about him.

There was the time Sanderson went to Bovill's Presbyterian Church wearing a cap with an obscene logo.

Another time, Sanderson responded to Janice Heustis' request for a pretty rock for her birthday. He showed up practically bent double with a box of rocks so she could pick the prettiest one.

"He loves birthdays," Bovill Mayor Becky Kellom said. "He gets something for everybody, even if it's just a rock."

Added Kathy Bailey, "He walked (16 miles) from Bovill to Clarkia once to give my sister Martha a bottle of Pepsi for Christmas."

Sanderson has spent a lifetime walking down highways traveled regularly by loaded logging trucks.

To Dick Priebe, the fact that Sanderson has come away from his journeys unscathed is proof enough there is a God.

"Somebody up there is looking out for him," Priebe said.

When Bailey's Bar recently changed hands, responsibility for looking after Sanderson was transferred to the new owner.

He's accustomed to having breakfast there, and new owner Cheryl Cook keeps a carton of a fortified instant breakfast drink and a container of vitamins behind the bar for him.

"You fall in love with him," Cook said. "You have to - it's part of the job."

That could be the town motto.

"He's probably living in the only place in the world that would accept him exactly as he is," Kellom said.