Bea Gaddy's spirit helps feed 17,500


If Bea Gaddy had been here yesterday, she would have been running around the basement cafeteria of Dunbar Middle School, yelling orders (with a smile) and saying hello to the 17,500 people who came to her place for Thanksgiving.

Had she been here, Baltimore's best-loved helper of the homeless and poor would have fed turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans, rolls, pie, cookies, juice - even a few stray doughnuts and bagels - to anybody who wanted to come.

She would have had her glasses on a chain around her neck and would have been wearing an apron and something red and white - it was as if she didn't know there were any other colors in the world, said her daughter, Cynthia B. Campbell.

And even though she had come to rely more on others to help her put on the dinner after being elected to the City Council in 1999, Gaddy would have made sure the 1,000 or so volunteers knew exactly where to go and what to do to keep the line moving and get all those people fed.

"She normally organized everything herself, and it has taken me and a team of 20 people to pull this off," Campbell said.

Gaddy died of breast cancer Oct. 3, just 50 days shy of her 20th Thanksgiving dinner, which each year was the most elaborate of her many efforts to help Baltimore's poor, and the one that brought together the people she had inspired to volunteer and the people who were thankful that she'd dedicated her life to never saying no.

Many of the people who came to eat yesterday said they'd been to Thanksgiving dinners with "Miss Bea" several times over the years, but more said they had decided to come for the first time. Nearly everyone said they'd known her, one way or another, and wanted to be close to her spirit on this day.

Howard E. Dabney and Jerry Byers of Baltimore were among the first in line when the doors opened at 11:15 and were ushered to a table at the back of the room to eat their turkey while boys and girls in plastic gloves and hairnets roamed around handing out pie. The men said Gaddy was a beautiful woman who always helped people when they needed it, no matter what it was or who they were.

"I miss her. I miss her for real," Dabney said.

The whole city misses her, said Sarah L. Matthews, a social worker and longtime friend of Gaddy who has been helping with Thanksgiving dinners for the past 12 years. Whenever another charity in the city couldn't help someone - to give them food or clothes or a place to sleep - it would call Gaddy, any time of the day or night, and she would always know how to help, Matthews said.

"I could always call her, but she's not there anymore," Matthews said. "I'm feeling a little melancholy today."

Even though she's gone, many of the volunteers said, they still felt her presence. Richard A. Mendel of Baltimore didn't know Gaddy, and he said he'd volunteered on only one previous Thanksgiving, many years ago before he moved to Baltimore. Still, he spent his morning in the school kitchen, filling up trays with turkey.

"I wanted to make sure what she was doing doesn't die," Mendel said.

"Bea Gaddy has been an inspiration to all of us here. She helped me when I was down and out, and I never had a chance to say 'thank you' properly," Clarence T. Brown of Baltimore said as he sat down to his dinner. "When I heard about her tragic death, I decided I'd do whatever I could do, be it volunteer or just come down and eat, to pay my tribute."

Yesterday, Bea Gaddy wasn't giving orders, she wasn't making sure the food arrived and she wasn't greeting her thousands of friends at the door. But she was definitely there, said Louisa Lopez Gaffney, a volunteer from Rockville.

"Do I know her personally?" Gaffney asked. "She's here in the face of every one of these people we're feeding here."

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