Bea Gaddy (1994)

Bea Gaddy brings her message of volunteerism to students at Harford Community College. (Baltimore Sun file photo / February 15, 1994)

Former City Councilwoman Bea Gaddy died of breast cancer in October 2001 at 68, but her legacy lives on with an annual Thanksgiving dinner nearly three decades old that has fed thousands of families searching for a hot holiday meal.

A one-time homeless woman who became one of Baltimore's chief advocates for the poor, Beatrice Frankie Fowler Brooks Gaddy was remembered at her funeral as "a people's person." The Thanksgiving tradition was born in 1981 when, using $290 she won from a 50-cent lottery ticket, Gaddy gave 39 people a holiday dinner. Over the years, those simple meals, first held outside her home at 140 Collington Ave., grew into media events at which hundreds, then thousands, were fed. Last year's 26th annual Bea Gaddy's Thanks for Giving Dinner was held at the Patterson Park Recreation Center.

Gaddy was a mother of five who had known dire poverty before embarking on her own bootstrap recovery and crusade to help the poor — soliciting grocery stores, philanthropies and civic groups for food, money and clothing. Her Patterson Park Emergency Food 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.

A native of Wake County, N.C., Gaddy moved her children to Baltimore in 1964. Poverty came with her. During a winter when she and her children were without heat in their house, she had to quit a nurse's aide job at Sinai Hospital to stay home with her children and then went on welfare. She eventually turned to attorney Bernard Potts, who had an office in her neighborhood and was involved in East Baltimore community work, for help.

"He became my mentor and encouraged me to go to college," she wrote in an autobiographical profile. She completed her high school education through a correspondence course and earned a degree in education in 1977 from Antioch University's Baltimore division. Potts set up a corporation for the operation of Gaddy's food center, which officially opened Oct. 1, 1981. "She just can't stand to see hungry people," he said in a 1989 Sunday Sun Magazine interview.

Her social activism carried her name far beyond Baltimore. She appeared on national television news shows, and Family Circle magazine once named her its "Woman of the Year." In 1992, then- President George H.W. Bush named her as one of his "Thousand Points of Light." That same year, The Baltimore Sun named her "Marylander of the Year."

Not content to be a social advocate, 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.

Her advocacy efforts garnered respect from the halls of power to the streets of the city.

"She was always on a mission," said Martin O'Malley, Baltimore's former mayor and now governor.

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

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