Legendary advocate for the homeless and hungry Beatrice “Bea” Gaddy, was known by many as the “Mother Teresa of Baltimore.” (Courtesy Photo)

By Ralph E. Moore Jr.,
Special to the AFRO

“Keep smilin’, keep shinin’
Knowin’ you can always count on me for sure
That’s what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I’ll be on your side forevermore
That’s what friends are for.”

– “That’s What Friends Are For” by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, 1982

You could call her a head chef, a maestro for helping feed so many, the best friend to those in need, just don’t call Bea Gaddy late for dinner. 

On Thanksgiving Day for 42 years now, up to 20,000 people were given a delicious Thanksgiving meal because Bea Gaddy wanted them to have it.  Some called her a saint. Perhaps Bea met the simple definition of sainthood: She gave so very much more to this world than she got from it.

The Bea Gaddy Thanksgiving Dinner is scheduled at the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center on Reedbird Avenue in South Baltimore. The festivities will begin at 11 a.m., as they have for two generations, for those in need and those volunteers who care about coming together to share the best moments (hours) of Baltimore being a community. 

But who was the woman still known for her ability (and credibility) due to her unvarnished commitment to help others–the poor, the homeless, the jobless… the too-often forgotten?

Beatrice Gaddy was born in Wake Forest, N.C., in 1933. Her family was poor and strained. She was a divorced mother of five at age 25, and eventually moved to Baltimore in 1964 after working as a housekeeper in New York City for several years. 

In the ‘70s, Ms. Gaddy began her charitable career on the staff of the East Baltimore Children’s Fund, a precursor to the current Baltimore Children and Youth Fund. She volunteered to use her home to distribute food and clothing to the poor. In 1981, she founded the Patterson Park Emergency Food Center, where she collected meats, canned and dry goods from nearby churches in a shopping cart and fed her neighbors. 

Ms. Gaddy began serving Thanksgiving dinners each year upon winning the Maryland State Lottery for $250, also in 1981. She fed 40 neighbors on Thanksgiving Day the year of her center’s founding. Over the decades, Bea fed people, gave toys to children at Christmas, donated furniture and clothing to the needy and started rehabilitating low-income housing. 

Gaddy was elected to the Baltimore City Council’s second district in 1999. She was one of the best-known government officials at every level: local, state and federal.  And her street level credibility (street cred) surpassed all, perhaps rivaled only by Congressman Elijah Cummings of the 7th Congressional District.

Of course, Bea Gaddy received numerous awards and acknowledgement in her phenomenal lifetime: the Unsung Hero Award (1972), Afro American Women of the Year (1984), Baltimore’s Best Award (1984), Mayor’s Citation (1988) and the Baltimore Sun’s Marylander of the Year (1992) were just some of her many recognitions, not to mention an honorary doctorate from Towson State University (1993) and the Frederick Douglass Award from the University of Maryland Board of Regents (2000). She was inducted posthumously into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2006.

Announced by Mayor Brandon M. Scott, the Bea Gaddy 42nd Annual Thanksgiving Dinner was temporarily moved to a new location, the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood. Traditionally, the Bea Gaddy Thanksgiving Dinner is held at the Virginia S. Baker Recreation Center in Patterson Park. However, due to necessary maintenance, the recreation center is temporarily closed while a replacement HVAC system is being installed. Mayor Scott, along with city leaders, worked with Bea Gaddy Family Centers Executive Director Cynthia Brooks to secure a new location that could accommodate the needs of the event, particularly the thousands of residents who attend every year to either receive food donations or volunteer to serve those in need. 

“The Annual Bea Gaddy Thanksgiving Dinner is an honored tradition in Baltimore, and we wanted to ensure we did everything in our power to make sure it moved forward no matter what,” said Mayor Scott.

Beatrice Frankie Fowler Brooks Gaddy left this world on Oct. 3, 2001.  She died of breast cancer complications.  Her gallant and inspiring work is carried on by the Bea Gaddy Family Centers, headed by her daughter, Cynthia Brooks.

Brooks thanked city officials for their efforts, saying, “After 21 years of being at Patterson Park, we came looking for a location that could match that area for what we needed it to be, and I am thankful to Mayor Scott and Councilwoman (Phylicia) Porter, Council District 10, for helping us find a temporary home at the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center.”  

In a recent phone conversation, Brooks continued, “This facility will be open to everyone in the area, and we pray to be back at Patterson Park next year. This will be our 42nd year and I am looking forward to it.” 

If you want to support Bea Gaddy and Cynthia Brooks’ kind and courageous commitment to the poor of the Baltimore area, go online to www.beagaddy.org.  

Feel free to donate dollars, food items, your time (when needed) and clothes and shoes in good condition. The Bea Gaddy Family Center is located at 425 N. Chester St. in Baltimore. You may contact the center at (410) 563-2749. If you read this article before Thanksgiving Day, donations will still be accepted up to Thanksgiving Day and funds and toys for Christmas will be accepted also at the Bea Gaddy Family Center.

Finally, a point of privilege: I knew Bea Gaddy because we served on the board of the Maryland Food Committee together in the ‘70s.  She was not yet well known at that time.  It was tremendous to see her grow into this phenomenal figure in our town, respected well in the halls of government, by businesses and charitable donors and on the streets of Baltimore.  It seems as if everyone knew and loved Bea Gaddy.  She can be favorably compared to Mother Mary Lange, the founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of religious women of African descent. Bea Gaddy fed bodies and Mary Lange fed minds.  

The Moore Report, Ralph Moore, Jr.
This week, Ralph Moore speaks on the continuing legacy of community advocate Bea Gaddy, who was renowned for her annual Thanksgiving Dinner that feeds thousands of homeless and needy Baltimoreans. (Courtesy photo)

Bea is missed in Baltimore. She was fearless and she unabashedly fought for the poor. And despite the best efforts of so many, none can compare to what Bea did for the masses.  She will be watching the dinner from her heavenly post. And she’ll be smiling down on Thanksgiving Day on all those folks dining and all the volunteers serving them. And she will be remembered for what she did for so very, very many. And we should all be thankful for her example.