Way to honor Gaddy's life is to be more like her

October 05, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

I HAVE HEARD way too many politicians suggest we display our patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks by going shopping and spending money. I guess maxing out the credit cards is a form of sacrifice for the greater good. But my suggestion for patriotic display -- if, by patriotic, we mean keeping faith with the principles of this nation and making it strong -- runs closer to what I saw Annie Davis do early yesterday, the day after her old friend Bea Gaddy died.

Annie Davis baked about 50 dinner rolls and gave them away in front of Gaddy's food pantry for the poor on Collington Avenue.

She does this maybe every day of her life. She's 83 years old, the former head cook at Dunbar High. She rises early at her rowhouse on Castle Street and bakes these rolls for churches and senior-citizen homes and even a secondhand store "out Eastpoint" that caters to people in need. No questions asked. And the rolls are delicious, yellow popover-like morsels creased in the middle.

"I make 'em all the time," Davis says under the canopy in front of Gaddy's house as middle-age men carrying bulky plastic bags come by for something to eat. "I use eggs and that yellow Crisco." She means the butter-flavored vegetable shortening. Makes all the difference.

"Care for a hot roll?" she asks a tall man carrying a bicycle tire and a plastic bag.

"Thank you," he says, and takes two on a paper towel, then grabs a loaf of bread off a table against the front of Gaddy's house. The table is stacked with bread from Graul's Market -- kaiser rolls, white bread, whole grain and tomato bread. It's there every day, and every day men and women come by and take what they need. No questions asked. It's been this way for years, started by Bea Gaddy and carried on by countless volunteers, like Annie Davis.

Like Sam Fleishman.

"Did you hear what St. George Crosse said on the radio just now?" Fleishman asks as he arrives from Northwest Baltimore. He's wearing a white painter's cap bearing Bea Gaddy's name, a keepsake from her campaign for City Council. He's fumbling with a piece of paper on which he's written the words he just heard Crosse, the conservative politician and preacher, say on WOLB-AM.

Crosse said the way to remember Bea Gaddy was to be what she was: "Be kind, be spiritual, be nice, be peaceful, be lovely, be generous."

Fleishman believes Crosse meant it this way: "Bea kind, Bea spiritual, Bea nice, Bea peaceful, Bea lovely, Bea generous."

Even if he didn't, that's how the words will appear when Fleishman writes them out on a poster.

"The really remarkable thing about Bea was, even as she was dying, she was trying to help people," Fleishman says. "I mean, think about that. To be dying, to be in as much pain as she was, and she's thinking of others."

Others who are hungry. Others who are homeless. Others who are lonely or hopeless. That's who was on Bea Gaddy's mind as she struggled with cancer -- the nameless men, sad-eyed women and children who would come by Collington Avenue looking for help.

"I've been a foster mom for 32 years," says Priscilla Johnson. "I used to come here to get something to help with the kids. One day I was standing in line, waiting for food, and Bea says to me, `Get out of that line and come in here and help me.' And from then on, I helped her with whatever she needed.

"We'd register the homeless kids for school. You'd have someone turned out because of a fire, or eviction, and they'd be staying in Bea's shelter, and their kids would need to be registered in school, and we'd do that. We'd make sure they had books and clothes, and we'd take the boys to get a haircut at a couple of barbers Bea knew. And then there'd be all the families in the neighborhood that needed something, and we'd fill up a bag of groceries and take it to their house."

Johnson had a nickname for Gaddy.

"I called Bea the Road Runner," Johnson says. "And sometimes I'd call her Beep Beep, like the Road Runner, because she was always moving, always doing something for somebody."

Robert Johnson arrives from Northwest Baltimore by bus with a sympathy card for Gaddy's family.

Annie Davis offers him a treat from her tray of rapidly disappearing dinner rolls. Johnson takes a couple on a paper towel. "You think about this old lady when you eat 'em," Davis tells him, and there's laughter on the day after Bea Gaddy's death.

Johnson was a regular at Gaddy's legendary Thanksgiving dinners for the poor. Not that he was poor. But he might have been lonely, and he felt at home among the guests at Gaddy's huge dinner.

"I worked out Social Security for 32 years," Johnson says. "People on my job used to say, `Where are you going for Thanksgiving?' I was a single person, wasn't going to cook for myself. So I went to Bea's. There was nobody in this town like her. She made sure you had clothes and food. Some family members don't care for you as much as she did."

Americans who wonder what they can do for their country, in the wake of the terrorist nightmare, might think beyond "getting back to normal" and hitting the shopping malls, as the politicians suggest. They might look to Bea Gaddy's example of active citizenship as a way to contribute to the greater good, starting close to home. Make the people around you stronger -- with a loaf of bread, a helping hand, a comforting smile -- and you make the neighborhood stronger. Make the neighborhood stronger, you make the city stronger. Make the city stronger, you make the nation stronger. "That's what Bea would want you to do," says Sam Fleishman. "Don't honor her, emulate her."

Honor her by emulating her.

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