Saluting a matriarch of the poor

The Baltimore Sun

To Michael Austin, she was the angel who appeared on his prison television each Thanksgiving, heaping mashed potatoes and turkey onto the plates of the thousands of homeless and needy people who had come to her for a hot meal.

Bea Gaddy, perhaps Baltimore's best-known ambassador to the poor, died in October 2001, less than three months before Austin was freed from his Jessup prison cell and returned to his home city.

He had served 27 years of a life sentence before a judge reversed his murder conviction, saying there was no evidence he had committed the crime.

The two never met, but Austin said Gaddy's spirit touched him. And as Thanksgiving approaches this year, he will give her perpetually struggling charity a gift.

Austin, a jazz musician who taught himself the trumpet while behind bars, is sponsoring "BeaFest" this Friday at the China Room in the Inner Harbor. The price of admission is $5 and five food items.

Blues singer Ursula Ricks said she agreed to perform there without pay because Gaddy, who helped her when she was homeless years ago, is "Baltimore's Mother Teresa."

"And while we're making comparisons," she added, "Michael is our Nelson Mandela."

In December 2001, a Baltimore judge "[remedied] the wrong" by reversing Austin's 1974 conviction in a fatal shooting of a security guard at an East Baltimore convenience store.

It was around Thanksgiving in 2004 when the state Board of Public Works paid Austin $1.4 million and then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. apologized to him for having spent time behind bars "for no reason, for inappropriate reasons, for unlawful reasons."

With his freedom and his money, Austin, 59, has thrown himself into public speaking engagements and his jazz band, In This 2gether. He said he also wants to "embrace the community because they embraced me when I came out of prison."

Recalling how he'd been touched watching television accounts of Bea Gaddy's Thanksgiving dinner, he said he decided to volunteer there, something he's done for about four years.

Last year, Bea Gaddy's charity workers served about 32,000 meals at the Patterson Park Recreational Center, organizers said.

"It's not Thanksgiving until I go there," Austin said. But this year, he got to thinking he could do more.

Even before Bea Gaddy died of breast cancer six years ago, her organization, the Bea Gaddy Family Center, on North Chester Street in East Baltimore, was struggling financially. And since her death, circumstances have gotten worse. About this time every year, the organizers make a desperate plea for Thanksgiving food, volunteers and money.

This year is no different. Asked how the center is doing, director Connie Bass has a one-word response: "Awful."

She ticks off a list of past-due bills. A $3,000 utilities bill. A $2,000 phone bill. Another $2,700 coming up to pay for truck rentals and insurance for the Thanksgiving dinner.

"We've barely managed to keep afloat," she said. "The center is packed. We're sticking people everywhere, kids everywhere. We are so close to closing. ... And there are so many people out there who are hoping this center is open tomorrow, when they need us."

Even so, when Austin approached her in late August with his idea, she was skeptical. She said many well-meaning people make similar pitches but typically don't come through with the money they promise.

Bass, who will attend Friday, said she now believes Austin is different.

"He has been absolutely wonderful, always keeping us abreast of what's going on and how things are going," she said. "The concern and interest he has shown with making sure we get something out of this outweighs whatever we get financially."

Austin is aiming high. Working publicity with Lisa Hansen from Waterfront Technologies, a local marketing and graphic design firm, he has been promoting the event through fliers and e-mail blasts, and is already planning for next year.

He said he has presold almost 400 tickets and hopes many more people will come out Friday. He'll have trucks outside the China Room, at South and Lombard streets, to receive the nonperishable food donations.

The performers he assembled includes his band, the Ursula Ricks Blues Project and Smooth Kentucky, a local bluegrass band. Most of them will play for free, starting at 8:30 p.m.

Austin admits to a "big learning curve" for hosting a fundraiser. He paid $1,500 to reserve the China Room and about $1,000 more on materials, using his money instead of seeking donated space and items.

But he said he doesn't mind the cost. His zeal is boundless.

"Everybody loves Bea Gaddy. I found something I have a great passion for."

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