Bea Gaddy, who climbed from poverty to advocate for Baltimore's needy and late in life won a City Council seat, died yesterday from complications of breast cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was 68.

"She was always on a mission," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who ordered that the city's flags be flown at half-staff.

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

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

"Bea was a beacon of hope for those who felt hopeless," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "She had a unique ability to reach out and help people."

Oakland, Calif., Mayor Jerry Brown, a former California governor, recalled yesterday that he stayed with Mrs. Gaddy during his 1992 presidential campaign. "She was a very dynamic woman, and I was amazed how she could take rundown buildings and make them into something good. She was able to bring life to the core of the city," he said.

Mrs. Gaddy was a mother of five who had known dire poverty before embarking on her own bootstrap recovery and a one-woman crusade to help the poor - soliciting grocery stores, philanthropies and civic groups for food, money and clothing.

Friends said she brought to her work leadership, stamina and kindness in an effort to comfort and invigorate people stalled on the desperation rung of the economic ladder.

She stressed kindness.

"I'm helping them satisfy one part of the problem by not hollering at them and giving them a kind word," she remarked on Christmas Eve 1988, as she and a corps of volunteers passed out food and presents to some 3,000 people at her North Collington Avenue house, called the Patterson Park Emergency Food Center.

Many of the people she fed and encouraged returned to the East Baltimore food center as volunteer helpers.

"Bea gave her life to others," said fellow 2nd District City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "She was a legend, a great lady."

Harold A. Smith, executive director of Catholic Charities, said, "She gave her heart and soul to the service of the poor and disadvantaged. In the process, she taught us all the importance of compassion and love for our brothers and sisters."

Mrs. Gaddy's 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.

Her social activism carried her name far beyond Baltimore. She appeared on such national television shows as the CBS Morning News. Family Circle magazine once named her its Woman of the Year.

In 1992, then-President George Bush named her as one of his "Thousand Points of Light." That same year, The Sun named her "Marylander of the Year."

"She was a remarkable lady," said Del. Talmadge Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat who often helped prepare Mrs. Gaddy's Thanksgiving dinners. "This is a devastating blow ... not only for those of us who cared and loved her, but for those in the community who are going to suffer, who are not going to be fed."

Phyllis Reese, marketing director for Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, met Mrs. Gaddy 15 years ago. "She was one of the most shrewd businesswomen I've ever met. She could have been a chief executive officer," said Ms. Reese.

"She was a saint in the true sense of the word. She loved and understood everyday kind of people and she used her celebrity to drawn attention to the needy, the homeless and hungry. She was a missionary to people who were out on the street," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., vice president of the Center for Poverty Solutions.

Not content to be a social advocate, Mrs. 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. City Council President Sheila Dixon, who called for a moment of silence before yesterday's Board of Estimates meeting, noted that Mrs. Gaddy fought hard to make sure the homeless were given decent medical services. Mrs. Gaddy also prodded city agencies to provide adequate services to her district.

"All of us know how tirelessly she has given of her life over the years to individuals that most of us probably wouldn't have given a second thought to," Dixon said.

Born Beatrice Frankie Fowler in Wake County, N.C., in 1933, Mrs. Gaddy experienced as a child many of the hardships endured by the people to whom she dedicated her life.

She was a toddler when her father left her mother, Bea and her two brothers. Her mother, a domestic worker, soon married a man who drank too much and terrorized the children.

"My childhood was a complete hell," she remarked in a 1989 Sunday Sun Magazine profile. By her early 20s, she had been divorced twice.

"Many days, we didn't eat because, when my mother didn't work and couldn't bring home leftover food, 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 back yard or through the window."

In 1964, with the help of a friend in Baltimore, she moved her children here. 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.

"I had a lot of time that winter to sit down and think about what being poor and hungry does to a person inside," Mrs. Gaddy said in that interview. "I never wanted anybody to know I was in such bad shape because you think being poor and hungry is all your fault. ... Then I just started asking people to help me. And that helped me help myself."

She also asked for help for other poor people.

"I used to take a big garbage can on wheels over to Patterson Park Avenue and go to all the grocery stores hustling food," she said.

"I was just shocked when all those store owners over there on Patterson Park Avenue said ... they would give us food. ... And I just said to myself, 'Ain't nothing going to stop me now.' "

One of those she turned to for help was attorney Bernard Potts, who had an office in her neighborhood and was involved in East Baltimore community work.

Mrs. Gaddy wrote in an autobiographical profile for her organization a few years ago that she met Mr. Potts while working as a school crossing guard. "He became my mentor and encouraged me to go to college," she wrote.

Mrs. Gaddy completed her high school education through a correspondence course and earned a degree in education in 1977 from Antioch University's Baltimore division. Mr. Potts, 86, now retired, set up a corporation for the operation of Mrs. Gaddy's food center, which officially opened Oct. 1, 1981. "She just can't stand to see hungry people," he said in the 1989 Sunday Sun Magazine interview.

In 1981, Mrs. Gaddy held her first public Thanksgiving dinner, feeding 39 people with the $290 proceeds from a lottery ticket.

By 1988, Mrs. Gaddy had attracted such broad community support that she planned shelters for homeless women and children at three rundown houses in the 400 blocks of N. Chester St. and N. Duncan St.

Mr. Potts' son, Bryan H. Potts, led a group organized to raise money for the shelters. "We didn't have five cents," the younger Potts said, recalling the group's preliminary meetings.

But sympathetic city officials gave them $100,000 - which was the kind of support that lent credibility to the shelter program when they solicited other funding, the younger Mr. Potts said.

Local foundations and businesses, including WJZ-TV, soon contributed. "You can't say 'no' to Bea when she asks for something," said Jonathan H. Klein, former WJZ-TV vice president and general manager, in an interview with The Sun in the 1980s.

Mr. Potts and his colleagues raised $190,000 to refurbish the houses that became the shelters.

But along with Mrs. Gaddy's celebrity came problems. Donations of food, the deeds to houses and thousands of dollars poured into her office. City officials almost closed one of her shelters in 1994, citing housing code violations.

Her food center was cited for poor bookkeeping and failure to file state and federal forms documenting the donations she received. She straightened out her books and never let the accusations stop her work.

Concern over Mrs. Gaddy's health arose in 1998, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"Ironically, the one life I neglected was my own. For well over a decade I felt lumps in my breast but didn't do anything about it," she wrote in her autobiography.

"In the event I can no longer continue, my children, who've worked by my side, will take over the operation," she wrote. This week, her survivors announced plans to continue her life's work.

The funeral will take place Tuesday at New Shiloh Baptist Church, 2100 N. Monroe St., with a wake at 11 a.m. and a "homegoing service" beginning at noon.

She is survived by two sons, Michael Brooks of Baltimore and John Fowler of Rockingham, N.C.; three daughters, Pamela Thomas, Saundra Briggs and Cynthia Campbell, all of Baltimore; three brothers, Mottie Fowler of Rockingham, N.C., Pete Young of New York City and Tony Fowler of Orlando, Fla.; a sister, Mable Beasly of Massachusetts; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Her husband, Lacy Gaddy, a professional cook whom she married in 1967, died in 1995.

Sun staff writer Gady A. Epstein contributed to this article.