Known as the Mother Teresa of Baltimore and St. Bea, Bea Gaddy rose from a life of poverty to become Baltimore's leading advocate for the homeless and poor.
Beatrice Frankie Fowler was born in Wake Forest, N.C., in 1933. Her family was very poor and suffered under the stresses of the Great Depression. She learned about domestic violence and poverty firsthand during her childhood. She said her father often threw her and her brother out of the house and that her mother lived in constant fear of being beaten.
By the time Ms. Gaddy was in her mid-20s, she was a twice-divorced mother of five, living on and off welfare. She moved to New York and worked as a housekeeper in Brooklyn for $50 a week. In 1964 she came to Baltimore as a single mother with few hopes or dreams.
While in Baltimore, a neighborhood attorney saw her potential and encouraged her to go to college. She enrolled in courses in mental health at Catonsville Community College and went on to earn her bachelor's in human services from Antioch University in 1977.
Helping others was a mission for Ms. Gaddy, and in the early 1970s she joined the East Baltimore Children's Fund. Her home became a distribution point for food and clothing for the poor. She used the experience to found a homeless shelter, which eventually became the Bea Gaddy Family Centers Inc.
Her Thanksgiving event, which would become a mainstay in the community and brought greater recognition to Ms. Gaddy's work to aid the needy, began in 1981. With $290 she won on a 50-cent lottery ticket, Ms. Gaddy bought enough food to feed 39 of her neighbors. She then decided to start a community kitchen for the needy.
At the beginning, the Thanksgiving dinner was held on the sidewalk in front of her home. Ms. Gaddy cooked most of the meal herself. To accommodate the growing numbers of diners, the dinner was held at a local middle school. Resourceful and persistent, Ms. Gaddy relied on donors to aid her work: local grocers donated canned goods, Shady Brook Farms donated turkeys and the Maryland Correctional Facility in Hagerstown assisted with cooking.
Ms. Gaddy also started a furniture bank and a program that refurbished abandoned row homes for families in need. She became an ordained minister in order to perform marriages and bury the poor at no cost to the families. She was also involved in running summer youth programs and teaching voter education.
Ms. Gaddy was elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1999.
Over the course of her life, Ms. Gaddy earned numerous honors, which include Unsung Hero Award, 1972; Afro American Woman of the Year, 1984; Baltimore's Best Award, 1984; National Council of Negro Women Humanitarian Award, 1988; Mayor's Citation, 1988; and Baltimore City Council Award, 1987 and 1989. In addition, she was a member of many organizations which include Martin Luther Church; Women's Auxiliary Butchers Hill Association Member; and assistant chairperson in the Johns Hopkins Day Program.
In 1998 Ms. Gaddy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent chemotherapy treatments, and the disease went into remission. It returned in 2001. Ms. Gaddy died October 3, 2001, at the age of 68. Her daughters have carried on her mission and continue the message that drove Ms. Gaddy's life and career:
"Let us share with those that are not as fortunate as we, care for the young children and help our fellow humans to stand tall with pride and dignity!"
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2006.