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Shadow of Her Smile

Bea Gaddy's Children Work to Keep Her Legacy Alive

Christopher Myers
Family Matters: (left) Cynthia Campbell and John Fowler organize supplies at the Bea Gaddy Family Center; Sandra Briggs doles out aid and comfort on War Memorial Plaza.
The Community Center of Earthly Delights: Fowler and Campbell help organize an annual effort to serve turkey dinners with all the trimmings to Baltimore's needy.
To Your Health: Briggs spends much of her time trying to convince people she meets to come into the bea gaddy cancer prevention and education center for a screening.
Cornucopia: Campbell and longtime Gaddy friend and confidante Norma Thompson (left) drop off supplies at the Maryland State Penitentiary.

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 12/4/2002

On Oct. 9, 2001, when heightened security was foremost on the minds of public officials and citizens alike in the wake of Sept. 11, a large gathering took place at Baltimore's New Shiloh Baptist Church. Bea Gaddy, commonly known as Baltimore's Mother Teresa for her lifelong efforts to help the poor and homeless, had died at age 68 from cancer. Terrorism or no, an estimated 6,000 people turned out for Gaddy's funeral.

Gov. Parris Glendening, Mayor Martin O'Malley, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend nestled side-by-side in the church's stately pulpit. Other dignitaries in attendance included state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a slew of prominent clergy and community activists, plus citizens from all walks of life who spilled out of the 2,500-seat sanctuary and into the streets.

The spectacular send-off capped Gaddy's long career of public service, a career filled with heartwarming highs and lasting lows. Since 1981, Gaddy had run numerous homeless shelters, food and furniture banks, and--her most renowned efforts--annual Thanksgiving and Christmas drives. Some Thanksgivings, more than 30,000 people enjoyed turkey and all the fixings thanks to Gaddy and a legion of volunteers, while about 5,000 struggling families had gifts beneath the tree each Christmas Day.

Her work brought her recognition and accolades: She appeared on the CBS Morning News and was featured in Family Circle magazine. She was named by then-President Bush in 1992 as one of his "Thousand Points of Light," and as "Marylander of the Year" by The Sun that same year. And in 1999, she ran for and was elected to City Council. The anniversary of her death, Oct. 3, is now Bea Gaddy Day in Baltimore City.

At the same time, Gaddy was criticized in some circles--especially, and ironically perhaps, by The Sun--for lax business practices and poor bookkeeping that led to a federal investigation by the Internal Revenue Service in the mid-'90s.

When Gaddy died last year, she left her five children few material things: a couple of houses in fair shape, a rattletrap bus used to transport food and furniture, and tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Mostly, what Gaddy left her children, Sandra Briggs, John Fowler, Cynthia Campbell, Michael Brooks, and Pamela Thomas, was a legacy of public service that people in need hoped wouldn't end.

At Gaddy's funeral, Briggs, Gaddy's eldest child (now 45), addressed the massive crowd from the pulpit, saying her family had taken a vow that Gaddy's "dream will never die." Since that day, Gaddy's children have hardly had time to grieve. Thanksgiving was just over a month away when Gaddy passed last year. With public sympathy running high, the siblings pulled it off, serving dinner to about 50,000 people. But that, they discovered, was just a start.

Gaddy's children had entered the public eye, and they felt the weight of expectation, the stares. "I remember when it came time to pull the cover up over Bea's face," before closing her casket, says Campbell, her voice hoarse with emotion. "And there was somebody from a newspaper taking pictures. I was angry because it was a special moment, the last time I'd see my mother's face." But it didn't matter, Campbell says, because Gaddy belonged to everybody.

Suddenly, new obligations joined the siblings' existing ones--Campbell's 16-year career with the U.S. Army, currently at Fort Meade; Fowler's life as a home-improvement specialist in North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and five kids; and Briggs' 23-year career working for various state agencies. The other two siblings, the youngest, were "chemically challenged," says one family member, ruling out any notions that they could take on part of Gaddy's grass-roots enterprise.

There were private talks among the family members of calling it quits, and protests about doing no such thing. Ultimately, says Fowler, "we realized we could only do what we could do," and that meant to give Gaddy's life's work their best shot.

On a recent autumn afternoon, just two weeks before Thanksgiving, the joint was jumping at the Bea Gaddy Family Center on North Chester Street in East Baltimore. There were no festivities or music, except for a tune from a TV game show leaking from a set in the background. But the telephones were ringing with callers inquiring about where to send holiday donations. Outside the whitewashed rowhouse--where a sign written in black marker and taped to a plate-glass window beckoned donors and needy alike to the center--folks in commercial trucks and family cars pulled up to unload everything from fresh produce to used sneakers.

Inside the center, a woman named Miss Rose tests a few donated grapes for sweetness; Wayne, a volunteer, helps haul boxes of donated goods; and Norman Harvel counts the center's blessings. "It's taken some time for people to realize that just because Bea Gaddy passed away the center has not closed," says Harvel, the acting director, who has volunteered with the organization for 18 years.

For months, Harvel has watched as donations trickled into the center, aided somewhat by recent campaigns to highlight Gaddy's achievements, such as the first annual Bea Gaddy Day on Oct. 3 and, with increasing fervor here near year's end, public-service announcements on local radio. Harvel says he is heartened to see "confirmation that [Gaddy] left a lasting impression on so many people."

Like many volunteers who worked alongside Gaddy throughout the years, Harvel says she earned his devotion by helping him during a time of need. "One Christmas, I didn't have any money [to buy gifts] for my three daughters and my wife," says the Dundalk resident. As the holiday approached, Harvel saw Gaddy on television and gave her a call. "The next day there were toys and food delivered to my door," he says. "I told her the following Thanksgiving I'd come volunteer--but she said she needed me right then." He's been on board ever since.

Such stories abound and are the stuff of Gaddy's legend. But while her heart was always in the right place, Gaddy's business practices cast a pall over the charity, a shadow that became part of her children's legacy as well.

In 1994, more than a decade after Gaddy's first meal for the needy, TheSun published the results of an extensive investigation into Gaddy's enterprise. The May 29 article, relying heavily on tax records--or the lack thereof--accused the then-61-year-old of gross financial mismanagement, unorthodox operations, and "internal chaos" within her organization.

Longtime friend Norma Thompson says that any financial irregularities came about from Gaddy's impulsive need to give. "If somebody was late with their rent, or their gas was getting cut off, Miss Bea would just [give them money and] say, 'Here, go pay it,'" Thompson recalls, adding that such transactions often weren't documented.

Still, Gaddy's organization encompassed about 19 properties, valued at more than $1 million, and gathered annual donations valued at more than $200,000--accountability was an issue. The article sparked an IRS audit; while Gaddy was found not to be criminally negligent, she was publicly humiliated. "I am not a rogue. . . . I was not raised to steal," Gaddy wrote to TheSun in response to its allegations. But, Thompson says, "while she kept a strong face to the outside," Gaddy cried about the incident, long and hard.

In 1998, the same year Gaddy was diagnosed with cancer, state records show that Bea Gaddy Family Centers reported $262,019 in revenue but was $37,496 in the red; in 2000 the charity's income had dropped to $114,997, while expenses totaled $207,391, resulting in a whopping $92,394 debt. In 2001, about six months before she died, the Bea Gaddy Foundation was formed to help improve the charity's organizational structure and develop fund-raising initiatives to support the family centers. Thompson, who sits on the foundation board, says that since Gaddy's death board members "have been meeting," but are waiting until Gaddy's children get a handle on their mother's affairs before tackling any new developments.

For their part, Gaddy's children were "afraid lots of things were going to fall through the cracks," says Fowler, Gaddy's 44-year-old son. "Bea kept everything in her head--all the companies she would contact [for donations]. We had to put Thanksgiving together [last year] on the fly--it was almost a guessing game."

Fortunately, Fowler says, people were sympathetic to the siblings' plight in the wake of Gaddy's passing and tried to help. "People at state agencies would say, 'Don't forget your liability insurance,' " he remembers. Overwhelmed at times, Fowler considered calling it quits. But the longer he thought about it, the more he remembered Gaddy's consistency through good times and bad.

"I remembered that she was always involved, always a community person," Fowler says. "She had this way of dealing with people, saying, 'OK, what's the problem,' and rolling up her sleeves to try and deal with it." But Fowler recognized that in order for him and his siblings to carry on the charity's efforts, changes would have to be made.

"Mother's thing was based on donations," he says. "But we want to become more self-sufficient--just because you're a nonprofit, doesn't mean you can't make money." Fowler says the charity hopes to reform and professionalize its operation somewhat, fund raising and applying for grants to hire a core of paid staff to supplement the good hearts and hard work of the volunteers. Without a full-time executive director, for now those are just ideas. Still, Fowler insists that the grass-roots tone of the organization won't change.

"Bea had this way of getting right to the root of people," Fowler says. "I learned from her that you don't have to be pretentious about wanting to help somebody. If you're down-to-earth, people will accept your help." And sometimes, Fowler and his siblings have learned, you have to be willing to ask for help yourself.

Sandra Briggs has the singsong voice and crisp enunciation of her deceased mother. But her eyes, brown and bright, often flicker with a deer-in-the-headlights look. It's not fear so much as calculation: how to get help--quickly.

It's early November, and Briggs is gazing intently at an assembly of about 30 people inside the library at Western High School. She needs volunteers to help out on Thanksgiving Day, and the Western students need community-service hours. It seems a match made in heaven, and along those lines Briggs, an ordained Pentecostal minister, is sermonizing.

"In order to keep Bea's legacy alive, I need each one of you," Briggs beckons, quoting the Book of Matthew : "'For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty and ye gave me drink. . . .'

"We are all puppets, instruments," of the Lord, she says, the fabric of her gold-embroidered pantsuit swishing as she paces to and fro. Briggs has "got the holy boldness" to advance her mother's cause, and besides, she says, "a homeless person is just like you or myself--sometimes the situation can't be helped. And it's gratifying to know you've helped somebody else."

This gathering wasn't the first time Briggs had championed her mother's cause or attempted to fill her shoes--a daunting task for anyone, especially Bea Gaddy's daughter. Last fall, Briggs joined a slew of other candidates in a bid for Gaddy's 2nd District City Council seat. (Gaddy was serving her first term in office when she died.) Briggs' claim that it was Gaddy's "dying wish" to have her fill the vacant council seat fell on deaf ears among members of the 2nd's influential Eastside Democratic Organization. Pamela Carter's appointment to finish Gaddy's term confirmed Briggs' feeling that her mother's "replacement was already planned--I didn't have a chance."

Of the three siblings who are trying to keep Gaddy's work in motion, Briggs has been the most vocal and visible. Early this year, she resigned from her job as an administrative assistant with the State Department of Transportation, terminating a 23-year career in the state bureaucracy and giving up her growing pension and full slate of benefits. It was a "big sacrifice," Briggs says, adding that nowadays she's "trying to make ends meet like everyone else."

Besides her mom's traditional charitable work, this past June Briggs helped launch the Bea Gaddy Cancer Prevention and Education Center, which is located near the family center on North Chester Street. Partnered with Johns Hopkins' Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Maryland, the new cancer center is still developing an operating budget, but for now is using startup funds of about $110,000 from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygeine's Cigarette Restitution Funds Program.

Douglas Wilson, senior research program manager for Hopkins (and a former Gaddy family center board member), says he's worked in the neighborhood for 12 years and is "familiar with all the nuances and economics" of dealing with disadvantaged communities. By joining forces with Briggs, and using Gaddy's well-regarded image and name, Wilson says the center can attract people who might otherwise be distrustful of institutions like Hopkins. Briggs, who works basically as a spokesperson, sees the relationship as a direct outgrowth of her mother's public speeches urging people to get cancer screenings following her own diagnosis.

In her increasingly public role, Briggs says she recalls her mother's way with words for inspiration, that it sometimes feels as if she's literally walking in her mother's footsteps.

During a recent foray downtown to feed the homeless along the Block, Briggs recalls meeting a homeless couple named Nicole and Leroy who were huddled beneath makeshift blankets. Ladling soup for them, Briggs says Leroy asked if she knew Gaddy. Appearing disoriented, Nicole mistook Briggs for her mother; "'Miss Bea?'" Briggs says the girl queried, to which she responded, "'No, I'm not Bea--but I knew her well.'"

The woman known simply as "Miss Bea" to most people was born Beatrice Frankie Fowler in 1933 in Wake Forest, N.C., a small town just outside the state capital, Raleigh. It was there that Gaddy experienced what she once called "a complete hell," growing up at the hands of an abusive stepfather. In a 1989 SunMagazine profile, Gaddy described it thus: "Many days, we didn't eat because, when my mother didn't work and couldn't bring home leftover food [from her job as a domestic], there was nothing to eat. And even when there was food, if my stepfather had been drinking, he'd come home and throw our plates out in the backyard or through the window." Her upbringing helped put her on the path a life of helping others to whom life deals a low blow.

In an as-yet-unpublished autobiography, Gaddy wrote that she came to Baltimore in 1964 "as a single mom with few hopes or dreams." With five children to feed, working when she could and taking welfare when she couldn't, Gaddy at times resorted to going through garbage cans for food and, later, pushing those cans with wheels "to local stores asking for food."

"Everybody just called her 'the beggar lady,'" recalls Norma Thompson, friend and confidant to Gaddy for some 25 years. But even at her lowest, Thompson says, Gaddy "knew how to get what she wanted," and what Gaddy wanted was to better herself and others. Urged on by a mentor, Baltimore attorney Bernard Potts, Gaddy earned a bachelor's degree in human services from Antioch University in the late 1970s.

Along the way, Thompson and Gaddy shared the joys and frustrations of motherhood; Thompson lost a son to drugs, two of Gaddy's children were lured into the same fog. Besides commiserating as moms, often the duo just had fun as friends.

"She'd call me and say, whispering, 'Norm, I hit the number, let's go have lunch!'" Thompson recalls.

Gaddy seemed to have a lucky star when it came to the lottery--it was with her small winnings that Gaddy paid for her first Thanksgiving dinner for 16 or so people at her home back in 1981. Other winnings would go to "pay guys on the street to help lift boxes or whatever she needed," Thompson says. "She'd sit on the curb with them, fuss with them to do right. She could be funny and say things you didn't expect." Even at sixtysomething, Thompson says, Gaddy would issue a snappy "Who let the dogs out! Roof, roof, roof!" and break into an impish grin.

A firm Christian herself, Thompson was delighted when Gaddy decided to study to become an ordained minister in 1997--more so perhaps than when Gaddy ran for City Council two years later. "She used to have problems getting permits and things and decided that [on the council] she could do more for people," Thompson recalls. But as a minister, the only red tape she'd have to slice through was the Lord's: "She wanted to be able to marry and bury people without charging them all that money it costs."

Two months before her death, in August 2001, Gaddy was ordained. Thompson knew about the cancer before Gaddy's children or the public and had accompanied her friend to many chemotherapy treatments since 1998. She says she had a funny feeling that Gaddy wasn't long for this world. "She had that look in her face, you know?" Thompson says. "It was hard to see that. I remember when the doctors first told her. We sat right there on the corner of Orleans and Wolfe Street and cried."

A year after her friend's death, Thompson's grief is still as palpable as a blues singer pouring out her sorrows. "There will never be another Bea Gaddy," she says wistfully. Considered an adopted aunt by Gaddy's children, Thompson applauds their desire to continue their mother's work but says, "They'll need all the help they can get."

As she enters the Bea Gaddy Family Center on North Chester, Cynthia Campbell, 43, has the erect bearing and purposeful stride you'd expect from a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army. She sees a visitor waiting, but first things first. "Please call somebody about that trash in the alley," she says crisply to Harvel before training surprisingly warm eyes on her guest.

While Briggs is concentrating much of her efforts on the cancer-prevention center and Fowler travels back and forth from North Carolina to help out part-time, it is Campbell who has taken over as president of the Family Center. Upon taking over last year, she discovered the center was about $20,000 in debt. "One of the first things I did was go to Baltimore Gas and Electric and promise them that the bills would be paid," she says, adding that the debt is now down to about $2,000.

"There's always been more bills than bucks," says Campbell, who was concerned that the charity's financial troubles could further "taint Bea's image. I wanted to set things straight--otherwise, I'd feel like a failure." Her piercing gaze tells you Gaddy did not raise a failure.

Instead, Gaddy taught her children to sacrifice, and keep hope against all odds. When the kids were little and lived in a small house on Mosher Street, Campbell remembers the family losing its electricity because Gaddy used the bill money to bail out a relative in Philadelphia, "so we got out oil lamps and would [string up] blankets upstairs and play war" and other games. Or they'd sit outside until late at night, watching cars go by and naming all the models. In other words, she says, "we made do."

Although Gaddy's generosity made life hard for her children at times, Campbell says her mother's love was always evident--even the yucky love. "Every morning," Campbell says, "we had to line up by the refrigerator and take cod liver oil--that stuff was terrible, worse than crack--and recite the months [of the year] in French. She taught us how to curtsy, and we wore crisp white shirts to school every day."

But Campbell's memories also include sharing Gaddy's attention with others, like the oodles of folks who came to the house to get "what had to be 1,000 pairs of white go-go boots. I don't know where she got them, but everybody was wearing them, even us," she recalls.

After high school, Campbell married a military man, moved to Germany, and subsequently joined the armed forces herself. In 1996 she returned to Maryland, just in time for what would become her mother's waning years. As cancer weakened Gaddy, Campbell says her mother fought not to show its effects and would shoo off too much fuss. "She was rebellious, saying 'You can't tell me what to do!'" Campbell recalls, even as family and friends urged her to continue chemotherapy as the end approached.

Hungry for private time together, Campbell says she would chide Gaddy about stopping to talk to so many people on the street. But while shopping with her mother in Fells Point one day, Campbell got a valuable lesson in the way Gaddy did things.

"All day long," Campbell says, "Bea had been stopped by people, and had given out about $100." As the afternoon progressed, Campbell sucked her teeth when yet another person came along, commanding her mother's attention. But when they got inside their car, Campbell recalls Gaddy "unfolding her hand to reveal $200 the [last] woman had pressed inside her palm. [Bea] told me, 'Never be afraid to give away what you've got because the Lord will give it back twofold.'"

With days to go before Thanksgiving, Campbell is trying to keep the faith. "I'll put it this way--on Nov. 9 we had enough food to feed fewer than 100 people. [A week later] we've got the makings for a dinner for almost 50,000," she says. "The God I serve is able."

For years, Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School in East Baltimore has served as the site for Bea Gaddy's Thanksgiving feast, and in that regard last week was no different. For the second year, Gaddy's face was not among the 2,000 or so organizers and volunteers milling around the school, although many of them wore sweatshirts printed with her likeness.

By 8:30 a.m., it was clear that many helpers had already been hard at it: Heated tents outside the school were filled with donated shoes and folded clothes piled four feet high on tables, all for the taking. Volunteer drivers had mapped routes and loaded vans with meals for the elderly and shut-ins. Inside the school cafeteria, red and white balloons floated above long banquet tables covered in white vinyl. In the center of the room, a festive-looking table had been set up to honor Gaddy, whose framed photo rested against crystal dinnerware.

For Fowler, Briggs, and Campbell, this day would not only be long, it would also be a test of sorts, to see how capably they've continued their mother's legacy thus far. It was a good sign perhaps that television, print, and radio media personnel were swarming the place. It was another good sign when U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings showed up and donned a plastic hair cap and gloves to help serve, as he'd done in prior years. Still, during the opening prayer, the Rev. Lynwood Leverette, pastor of Mount Pisgah Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (where Gaddy was ordained), talked about the challenge Gaddy's children had faced.

"Last year it was easy," he said, citing the high emotions stirred up by Gaddy's passing. "But this year has been the real test . . . and because of your contributions, we are blessed to celebrate another Thanksgiving."

Rev. Leverette and many others in the room--powers-that-be and unempowered alike--heaped praises upon Briggs, Fowler, and Campbell for their initiative. The siblings in turn praised stalwart supporters and friends like Thompson, who decorated Gaddy's special table and helped supervise the event. (After helping to set up, Fowler headed home early that morning to his family in North Carolina.) By asking for help, Gaddy's children helped feed some 45,000 people last week, with several thousand donated turkeys and vast quantities of home-style veggies and desserts like pumpkin cheesecake.

During what would turn into a 20-plus-hour day, an exhausted Campbell said she was "holding on," issuing directives, accepting lots of hugs, and manning a laptop computer to track food pick-ups from the center. Briggs, chipper and "doing just fine" despite a serious lack of sleep, graciously worked the room nonstop, thanking all comers.

No one talked about plans for next year--that would start soon enough. People simply basked in the moment, having come from all walks of life to give--and show--thanks. Catonsville residents Ralph and Alicia Williams, a computer programmer and nurse respectively, came to show their 5-year-old son Rasheed the "value of giving back to the community," said Alicia Williams. The couple also wanted to demonstrate support for Gaddy's children. "They reached out to people and asked for help," Alicia Williams said, "and that's the only way to keep [Gaddy's work] going."

" So far," Ralph Williams added, despite financial and organizational challenges, Gaddy's children "seem like they're capable."

When Alma Walker and Oliver Felder joined the line of those waiting to be fed that morning, neither of them was preoccupied with thoughts of who was leading the effort--they were just glad to know it was still happening. Otherwise, Walker says, "we would have had to stay home and just eat what I got there." Judging from Walker's demeanor, home--at least in terms of a full holiday meal--wasn't a good option.

For 10 years, Walker has utilized Gaddy's center in times of need, including for household furniture, she says. Today, she and Felder have milled through the tent outside and come away with a blue electric blanket. In a room filled with people who need a little help to get by, Felder says the event "makes me feel happy. That's the best way to put it."

In the weeks just prior to this Thanksgiving, Campbell says she was still wondering, Why am I doing this?

"But then I realized I'm doing it because history defines us by the best things we do and the worst things we do in our lives," she says. "Bea's history has already been written, but her work--that can never be finished."

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