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A Man Who Walks on Water: The Life and Times of Decorah's Own Bill McClain
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A Man Who Walks on Water: The Life and Times of Decorah's Own Bill McClain

My late father-in-law would strike up a conversation with just about anybody he met-- if he was in the mood and had the time. I was with him various times when he would strike up a conversation with a complete stranger and after that chat about some interesting bit of trivia or local culture, he would turn to me and say-- “What a character.” This was not a disapproving term, but one that just meant the person he was referring to was a bit more interesting than the average person he spoke to. I would classify the man featured in this blog post as a character in just this way. His name is Bill McLain-- and he's also affectionately known as Uncle Bill by many on Decorah's Water Street. 

Bill has a residence in the countryside north of Decorah, but most days practically lives on Water. He was a farmer for most of his life. But during the mid-1990’s, Bill began working off-farm, at Storypeople. He stayed for thirteen years, eventually retiring in 2008. By then, Bill had many friends and acquaintances on Water, and he continues to be a regular in the heart of Decorah's downtown on an almost daily basis. 

Bill often begins his day at the Oneota Food Co-op, or at Magpie Coffeehouse, eventually making a loop around downtown, winding up at the Decorah Public Library. There he perches in the mezzanine, catching up on the latest news and visiting with the regulars. Did you know that Magpie even has a special breakfast named after him? It's called "Uncle Bill’s Favorite". And It’s so hefty you can get half an order! Bill also says he eats breakfast at T-Bocks every Sunday morning. 

At lunch, you can spot Bill at a variety local restaurants. I’ve often seen him at Edes & the Angry Pickle, or he'll perhaps order a sandwich from a restaurant and go home, possibly returning to town for entertainment in the evening. On days Bill doesn’t go home for lunch, he’ll hike the trails around Decorah, or fish the Upper Iowa River. McClain walks to the Luther College Library on a weekly basis to catch up on new items in the magazine section. 

Bill is self-educated and well read. On occasion, I've heard him discussing some obscure (to me) poet or novelist with other folks at one of coffee shops he visits. He knows what's going on in the world. He's a self-taught naturalist and a lover of folklore. You can read Bill's book-- Life in the Hill Country, on Amazon in digital form, or find him to order a copy. (Fun Fact: Bill doesn’t have a cell phone or phone of any kind!) Read his book, and learn what life was like in the countryside around Decorah, and what town was like fifty years ago. McLain doesn’t use a computer, so I suspect his niece Michelle McLain, (who operates Thunder Rode-- an equine therapy program) helped him get that worked out. Bill grew up on the farm on Meadowlark Road north of Decorah, where Thunder Rode is located.

Michelle is also one of the folks who takes her Uncle Bill to La Crosse every other week for ongoing immunotherapy treatments for a malignant melanoma he contracted several years ago. Bill explained to me that he was one of the first (if not the first) to get this treatment at Gunderson in La Crosse. His therapy continues, as there is little knowledge of whether or not the cancer actually remains in remission after Bill's treatment ends. I told him that he was in some ways a research subject. Bill agreed, adding that he is thankful to be alive and attributes this to the treatment. He’s happy to be a part of furthering knowledge about the effectiveness of the therapy. 

When I first asked Bill’s permission to write about him, he was sitting on a corner bench of Water and Winnebago or Washington. He told me about the benches-- how they add to the downtown social space, and how people are starting to use them more. He reminded me that we're all getting older. Bill spoke about how the benches are often used by folks our age, and recalled the many times he's seen them serve as meetup places for shoppers carrying bags of goods. Bill says it's important to be open to conversation with anybody that sits down. He says one learns a lot about people in this manner. 

I'm confident that my father-in-law would have thought Uncle Bill was a character. I sure do. And he's also a friend to so many of us who live on or frequent Water Street. If you don’t know Bill and want to visit with him, look for an older gentleman of medium height with a baseball cap. He's typically wearing a black leather jacket, sitting on one of the corner benches or in the Oneota Co-op or Magpie, or walking slowly down Water. You can also just ask somebody on the street where they’ve seen Bill McLain lately. Sit down for a chat with Bill. You’ll be sure to learn something. 

Contribute to the conversation! Tell us your story about Water Street living.

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  1. Imagine Northeast Iowa Support
    Imagine Northeast Iowa Support
    What a lovely piece! Thanks for the post!
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