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Sending a Powerful Message

Bill Eckersen (seated, middle) is this year's recipient of the Morris Human Rights Award. He was honored by the Morris City Council at a meeting last month and received a standing ovation. Eckersen is pictured with members of the Morris Human Rights Commission: From left, seated are commission members Ida Stewart and Christine Gibson. From left, in back, are members Mike Miller, Tom McRoberts and Bert Ahern.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Most people who win awards do so by dint of things they've done.

Bill Eckersen is the recipient of the Morris Human Rights Award because of who he is.

Eckersen is the third winner of the award created by the City of Morris' Human Rights Commission, and he received the honor last month.

That Eckersen would be surprised to receive the honor speaks to the character that led to his nomination by local mental health advocate Liz Hinds.

Eckersen might be one of the most well-known personalities in West Central Minnesota as Program Director of KMRS-KKOK radio in Morris, and KKOK's morning show host. His voice is heard daily by thousands of listeners, and he often is tabbed to host events in the community.

But his status has no bearing on the type of person he is and what he is willing to contribute in his relationship with people who are dealing with mental health issues, Hinds said.

"He likes people and they like him," Hinds said. "When you have a public persona like he does and you share your spare time with people who are dealing with mental health issues, that says something to them: I'm a well-known person in the community but I still like you and want to spend time with you. That's a very powerful message."

Eckersen's partner, Susan Brooks, is a founder of a mental health social club that formed several years ago to help those coping with mental illness. Since isolation is a significant problem for people who have mental illnesses, the social club was intended to help people get out in the community for various events and form helpful personal relationships.

"Susan was doing all the organizing and was looking for help with the group, and I knew what it was about," Eckersen said. "In my role with the radio station, I had done stories about it and I had been to some of the activities."

His involvement went beyond a professional and cursory personal role, however.

Eckersen attended state conferences of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and, once back in the community, he always could be found at various social club functions.

He helped set up events, he hosted events and provided entertainment at other club functions. He would DJ a dance, call Bingo - whatever was needed.

He was even entrusted with the apron to grill hamburgers at a club picnic.

"I never felt like I was volunteering for an organization," Eckersen said. "I was just helping out. It's a nice feeling to be recognized for it."

Hinds said Eckersen's low-key friendship and social style were perfect fits with what the social club and a drop-in center, which opened last year, are trying to accomplish.

"He came to things because he was with Susan, but it just kind of bloomed because he saw a need," Hinds said. "People took to him because of his low-key style. He's very non-threatening for people who may have difficulty making friends. He contributes not just by what he does but by who he is. That makes a big, big difference."

As he got more involved, Eckersen discovered a lot about mental illness.

"I knew most of the people and I got to know other people," he said. "It gave me a different take on people with mental illness. They're all adults who have come from families with problems, and I can sympathize with how hard it can be."

In just the few years the club has existed, Eckersen said he's heartened to see dramatic improvement in some of the members through the increased social interaction.

"With mental illness, there are so many more people than you might think who are dealing with it," he said.

Eckersen also was moved by who took the lead in honoring him. Through his work and life, he knows and has come to respect highly the members of the Human Rights Commission, including two members, Tom McRoberts and Bert Ahern, with whom he took classes in college.

"It's nice to get a pat on the back," Eckersen said.

And what Eckersen hopes people take from his nomination for the award is that there are many people - some in very understated ways - who are worthy of such recognition.

"There are so many people in this community who volunteer for stuff," he said. "If there is somebody out there who volunteers for a group, it would be nice if this gives people an idea that they can nominate them, that they deserve a pat on the back."