Advocate 'was always on a mission' for poor

Service: Overcoming poverty, she fed thousands and was elected to the City Council.

Bea Gaddy: 1933-2001

October 04, 2001|By Jacques Kelly, Frederick N. Rasmussen and M. Dion Thompson | Jacques Kelly, Frederick N. Rasmussen and M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF WRITERS

Bea Gaddy, who climbed from poverty to advocate for Baltimore's needy and late in life won a City Council seat, died yesterday from complications of breast cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was 68.

"She was always on a mission," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who ordered that the city's flags be flown at half-staff.

"She was certainly the Mother Teresa of our community," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, adding that Mrs. Gaddy was a "gentle individual who never raised her voice but could be very direct when she wanted something for the people she served."

"The way she took care of poor people in East Baltimore made her into a legend," state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, former mayor and governor, said yesterday.

"Bea was a beacon of hope for those who felt hopeless," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "She had a unique ability to reach out and help people."

Oakland, Calif., Mayor Jerry Brown, a former California governor, recalled yesterday that he stayed with Mrs. Gaddy during his 1992 presidential campaign. "She was a very dynamic woman, and I was amazed how she could take rundown buildings and make them into something good. She was able to bring life to the core of the city," he said.

Mrs. Gaddy was a mother of five who had known dire poverty before embarking on her own bootstrap recovery and a one-woman crusade to help the poor - soliciting grocery stores, philanthropies and civic groups for food, money and clothing.

Friends said she brought to her work leadership, stamina and kindness in an effort to comfort and invigorate people stalled on the desperation rung of the economic ladder.

She stressed kindness.

"I'm helping them satisfy one part of the problem by not hollering at them and giving them a kind word," she remarked on Christmas Eve 1988, as she and a corps of volunteers passed out food and presents to some 3,000 people at her North Collington Avenue house, called the Patterson Park Emergency Food Center.

Many of the people she fed and encouraged returned to the East Baltimore food center as volunteer helpers.

"Bea gave her life to others," said fellow 2nd District City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "She was a legend, a great lady."

Harold A. Smith, executive director of Catholic Charities, said, "She gave her heart and soul to the service of the poor and disadvantaged. In the process, she taught us all the importance of compassion and love for our brothers and sisters."

Mrs. Gaddy's center provided Thanksgiving dinners to as many as 20,000 people some years, collected toys for poor children at Christmas, distributed hundreds of pairs of shoes in the winter and helped coordinate summer camps for young people.

Her social activism carried her name far beyond Baltimore. She appeared on such national television shows as the CBS Morning News. Family Circle magazine once named her its Woman of the Year.

In 1992, then-President George Bush named her as one of his "Thousand Points of Light." That same year, The Sun named her "Marylander of the Year."

"She was a remarkable lady," said Del. Talmadge Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat who often helped prepare Mrs. Gaddy's Thanksgiving dinners. "This is a devastating blow ... not only for those of us who cared and loved her, but for those in the community who are going to suffer, who are not going to be fed."

Phyllis Reese, marketing director for Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, met Mrs. Gaddy 15 years ago. "She was one of the most shrewd businesswomen I've ever met. She could have been a chief executive officer," said Ms. Reese.

"She was a saint in the true sense of the word. She loved and understood everyday kind of people and she used her celebrity to drawn attention to the needy, the homeless and hungry. She was a missionary to people who were out on the street," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., vice president of the Center for Poverty Solutions.

Not content to be a social advocate, Mrs. Gaddy entered politics during the 1990s. She made her first bid for the City Council in 1991, coming within a few votes of winning a seat in the city's 1st Councilmanic District. Three years later, she briefly challenged U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes but bowed out after a week, citing the money she would need for a statewide campaign.

In 1999, she handily won a City Council seat from the 2nd Councilmanic District. City Council President Sheila Dixon, who called for a moment of silence before yesterday's Board of Estimates meeting, noted that Mrs. Gaddy fought hard to make sure the homeless were given decent medical services. Mrs. Gaddy also prodded city agencies to provide adequate services to her district.

"All of us know how tirelessly she has given of her life over the years to individuals that most of us probably wouldn't have given a second thought to," Dixon said.

Born Beatrice Frankie Fowler in Wake County, N.C., in 1933, Mrs. Gaddy experienced as a child many of the hardships endured by the people to whom she dedicated her life.

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