Gaddy, social conscience of city, was kind but tough

October 04, 2001|By Michael Olesker

BEA GADDY, the patron saint of Baltimore's homeless, was a reminder to all of us who have beds of our own, bountiful dinner tables and full bellies: There are lost souls in our midst, and we ought to try to help them, even when it's easier to turn away.

She was the personification of a community's social conscience, the nagging mother figure in our heads, the woman we remembered when we took our idealism out of mothballs. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, as many as 20,000 people would arrive for holiday dinners at one of Bea's places. Many stuck around for a secondhand sweater or some socks. Those who donated the food and clothes considered it an act of great generosity. For Bea, it was another day at the office.

She spent the last 20 years fighting for those kissed off by the rest of humanity, and the last couple years fighting the clock.

"She had a good fight," her brother, Pete Young, was saying yesterday morning, just minutes after Gaddy, 68, died at Johns Hopkins Hospital after a long struggle with cancer. "She was a fighter, but the fight is over. She made her life a song of triumph."

"Was she content at the end?" Young was asked.

"Of course not," he said. "She was a fighter. A fighter is never content."

She was a mix of tenderness and tenacity. She wanted to embrace those in trouble, but she knew she couldn't do it with hugs and kisses alone. She saved the hugs for children who wandered in with their mothers, and the tenacity for those with lots of money who needed to discover a conscience.

And she was tough with those who came to her expecting they could continue lives of aimlessness and dissolution.

Nine years ago, she opened her place for homeless women and children in East Baltimore's 400 block of Chester St. A week after the opening, there were several dozen women and children in the place, and here was Bea, standing in a tiny kitchen area, telling a woman holding her baby in one arm how to rinse out a bottle properly. The woman was 22 years old and looked as if she were hearing such instruction for the first time in her life.

"Where did you live before this?" the woman was asked.

"You mean indoors?" she answered.

"Indoors, yeah."

"My sister's house. But that was, um, about a month ago."

She and her baby had been living on the street since then. A few minutes later, Bea went to an upstairs hallway and heard a child shrieking from a bedroom. She found the kid leaning out a second-floor window, while an infant was sprawled on a bed and another toddler tried to stick a baby bottle in the infant's mouth.

"Get that baby out of that window," Bea hollered at the children's mother. Then she turned to the crying child. "What's the matter with this baby?"

"Baby's so spoiled, you can't do nothing with him," the mother said. She looked about 19.

"Well, who did it?" Bea asked.

"Did what?"

"Spoiled the baby."

"Not me."

"Yes, you," said Bea. "Responsibility, young lady. That's what we're talking about."

That's what some people never understood about Bea Gaddy. She wasn't some naive social worker letting a bunch of laggards and manipulators sneak one past her. Those who stayed with her were expected to go to work, to get an education, to get job training. She was teaching people how to make it on their own.

The sound of her voice wasn't a caress. It was a dare. She dared those who came to her to do something better with their lives; and she dared the rest of us to turn away at our own risk. It was remarkable to see corporate leaders in Bea's midst. They'd come to her with food, or with money. And the looks on their faces said something wonderful was happening to them: They were feeling better about themselves than they ever anticipated. Helping somebody else was more fulfilling than stuffing their own wallets.

"I know what it's like to hunt for food in a garbage can and eat out of a Dumpster," Bea said one day. She thought about it every day. She was homeless for years. She'd talk about an impoverished childhood in Depression-era North Carolina, about getting raped before she reached her teens, about an abusive stepfather.

By her early 20s, Bea had married and divorced twice. By 1964, she moved to Baltimore, a single mother who worked as a school crossing guard. On cold days, a man named Bernard Potts would let her warm up in the lobby of his building. He encouraged her to go to college.

She had five children and wondered how she would feed them. Then she realized there were many others with the same problem. She started pushing a garbage can with wheels to local stores asking for food, which she shared with others. Her home became a distribution point for food and clothing donated by B'nai B'rith. Out of that, she founded the Patterson Park Emergency Center, which became Bea Gaddy Family Centers Inc.

She got herself elected to a City Council seat a few years ago. By then, it was clear she was running out of energy. There were whispers of problems in the homeless operation. There was a sense it had gotten too big and complex for a woman of her age and in failing health to handle on her own.

But look what she did until the end of her life. She gave the destitute a second chance. And she gave the rest of us a role model, a mother figure nagging us to do something for those out there in the cold.

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