Thanksgiving's patron saint brought out the best in us

November 22, 2001|By Clayton Apgar

BEA GADDY'S death last month at 68 went unnoticed by most Americans. But in Baltimore, she was a legend, the Mother Teresa of Charm City.

Her passing was a blow to a city accustomed to her caring hands and her tireless efforts on behalf of the poor.

In life, Ms. Gaddy was short, her presence much larger than her person. Cotton white hair surrounded a chocolate face with a twinkle in each eye and a warm grin that stretched from ear to ear. She was graceful and dignified. She possessed child-like exuberance and steely determination.

She lobbied on behalf of the city's poor and homeless year-round as the figurehead for and inspiration behind a network of soup kitchens and charities and, more recently, as a city councilwoman.

Her efforts culminated each year in a citywide feast she hosted on Thanksgiving Day, a Baltimore tradition, like Orioles baseball, only much less expensive to attend; "guests" simply needed to show up at the door. My senior year in high school, my dad, my sister, Sarah, and I volunteered to help prepare the meal.

My dad dragged me from bed at 4:30 am, that no-man's-land on the clock that's too late for night and too early for morning. I pulled on a pair of jeans and bundled up in a sweater and a sweatshirt. In our kitchen, Sarah and I munched slowly on Pop-Tarts and sipped orange juice before joining our dad in the car and heading downtown.

The city streets were deserted but for the lonesome souls pressed against Baltimore's traditional marble front stoops and huddled in alleys who had no escape from the bitter cold. We were going to cook meals for these homeless whom we drove past in our car, the heater turned all the way up. We pulled into a small parking lot behind Dunbar High School, a rambling brown-brick superstructure.

The sun slowly illuminated the skyline of the business district across town. There were so many volunteers that it was impossible for the organizers, Ms. Gaddy's able lieutenants, to keep everyone constantly involved. It was the kind of overload they welcomed.

Ms. Gaddy arrived just as the city awoke to Thanksgiving morning. I was hunched over a bag of canned goods. She stood for a moment in the cafeteria doorway. Three of her staff, all of whom seemed at least twice as tall as she, crowded behind her. She marched quickly to the kitchen. Although she didn't say so, we all understood the message: This was no time to slow down. The pace quickened. We moved tables and chairs, hauled boxes of potatoes and carried turkey after turkey from delivery trucks.

Scores of volunteers appeared throughout the day to slice hundreds of turkeys and spoon stuffing, mixed vegetables and mashed potatoes. When the first guests started to walk in off the streets at lunchtime, all of us early volunteers had long since returned home.

The lead story on the news in Baltimore Thanksgiving night was always the free dinner Ms. Gaddy served to thousands of Baltimoreans. I swelled with a bit of pride as I watched the recap that night. I had helped her prepare the dinner.

Each Thanksgiving Day since, I've remembered my morning with Ms. Gaddy. I only helped for a few hours. But the event brought out the best in people and in our city.

I realized recently that I took Bea Gaddy's presence in the life of Baltimore for granted. She offered hope to Baltimoreans who needed hope. She was a saint for her city.

Clayton Apgar is a senior at Princeton University.

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