A place for Gary

| May 21, 2015 | 0 Comments

Volunteers celebrate life of homeless man they call friend, prepare proper burial for the Vietnam War veteran

From left, volunteers Greg Eaton of St. Thomas Becket in Eagan, Paul Stoll, Mike Flynn of St. Cecilia in St. Paul and John Bromen of St. John Neumann in Eagan pose with the cremated remains of Gary Smith, a homeless man whom they befriended before he died of a heart attack Jan. 15. Not pictured is Steve Hawkins of St. John Neumann, who helped organize the volunteers to do a memorial service for Smith. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

From left, volunteers Greg Eaton of St. Thomas Becket in Eagan, Paul Stoll, Mike Flynn of St. Cecilia in St. Paul and John Bromen of St. John Neumann in Eagan pose with the cremated remains of Gary Smith, a homeless man whom they befriended before he died of a heart attack Jan. 15. Not pictured is Steve Hawkins of St. John Neumann, who helped organize the volunteers to do a memorial service for Smith. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

If not for a group of dedicated volunteers at the Dorothy Day Center’s overflow shelter in downtown St. Paul, Gary Smith likely wouldn’t have been commemorated at the end of his life.

When Smith, 69, died Jan. 15 from a heart attack, Steve Hawkins and other men from parishes throughout the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis worked diligently to ensure that the Vietnam War veteran would receive a proper memorial and burial. Smith had been a guest of the overflow shelter since it opened in 2010.

Along with the other volunteers, Hawkins, a parishioner of St. John Neumann in Eagan, spends nights with the homeless men at the shelter, providing meals and companionship. Some welcomed Smith to their homes for the holidays. Others drove him to medical appointments and the grocery store.

“[Smith] was one of those guys who, without exception, every volunteer got to know,” Hawkins said. “And that was apparent when we held the memorial service for him following his death. The comments from volunteers were very touching. This was a homeless man who had nothing to give but his own love.”

Before the Feb. 7 memorial service at the shelter, Hawkins and the others began looking into Smith’s history in order to plan a proper service. They weren’t aware of any family members or connection to the Twin Cities.

“He joked that the Cities was all the farther his money could have gotten him,” Hawkins said. “Even speaking with his social worker, Gary tried very hard not to be found. He had no driver’s license, and he didn’t register with the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs]. He was quietly trying to be unseen and unobserved.”

Hawkins learned of Smith’s death when he went to pick him up from the apartment he was able to get with help from the volunteers. When Hawkins arrived, he found out Smith had been taken to the hospital, where he died after a heart attack. Because social workers were unable to locate family, the hospital released Smith’s body to the volunteers, who had his body cremated.

“Having grown to be close friends with him, we couldn’t envision his body going anywhere else,” Hawkins said. “It was never a question. We would see to it that he had a reasonable burial regardless of cost.”

Their next step was deciding where Smith should be buried. From their conversations with him, they knew he had served in Vietnam. Hawkins said one of the few pieces of clothing Smith kept was an embroidered Air Force sweatshirt.

Gary Smith

Gary Smith

“He probably spoke more about his time in the service than any other part of his life,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins connected with Col. Johanna Clyborne, a Shakopee attorney and commander of the 347th Regional Support Group of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Clyborne, the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, agreed to help Hawkins navigate through military legalities. They wanted to have Smith buried in Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.

“No service member should have to journey alone,” said Clyborne, who attends St. Hubert in Chanhassen. “It’s a brother-and-sister-in-arms thing. You never want to leave anyone behind. I wanted to recognize the sacrifices he made.”

After obtaining Smith’s discharge paperwork, Clyborne had to solve the mystery of where he came from and what he did. She learned that Smith was from Manhattan, New York, and entered the Air Force in 1965 at age 20. He served as a communications specialist during the Vietnam War and left active duty in 1969. As a staff sergeant, his awards included the National Defense Service Ribbon, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, the Air Force Good Conduct Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, and the Air Force Outstanding Award with One Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster.

At Smith’s memorial service, which Catholic Charities CEO Tim Marx attended with about 60 of Smith’s friends, Clyborne gave the eulogy. After quoting John F. Kennedy’s call not to utter words, but to live by them, Clyborne shared this with those who mourned Smith:

“Because all of us believe and understand in the fabric of the common bond of why we call ourselves American is to care for the men and women who wear the uniform; and when they take off the uniform, we care for them when they are veterans.

“That is what you have done for Gary. You have cared for him, nurtured him, watched over him and provided what every veteran needs most, friendship. For that, I and every veteran thanks you.”

“He would have been thrilled to know that a colonel showed up for his eulogy,” Hawkins said.

“I did what I think any service member would have done,” Clyborne said. “Truly, the Dorothy Day volunteers are incredible. You could just tell that these were people who cared, who truly believed in the dignity and respect of all humans.”

Clyborne said that, unfortunately, there are a lot of veterans who are homeless for various reasons, the vast majority “caught within a cycle that’s hard to break.”

“I feel it’s an unspoken contract that society has broken with veterans,” she said. “We have an obligation to take care of them when they come home. It’s sad to see veterans who never got the thank-you and never got the welcome. It’s because of Gary that my generation is getting the help it needs.”

A consolation for Clyborne is the fact that Smith found a common bond and friendships within the homeless community.

“It’s a different kind of family, but it’s a family nonetheless,” she said.

The volunteers were ready to arrange Smith’s burial at Fort Snelling when they learned he had a son, Jason Williams, who lives in Philadelphia and has two children. Hawkins was able to connect with him and was pleased to learn that Williams recalled his father fondly.

“Steve has shared with me how many lives my dad touched while in Minnesota for the past five years,” Williams said. “Hearing this brings me such pleasure to know that by someone helping my dad he has been able to touch other lives. It has truly been a ripple effect.”

Hawkins said Smith’s family and friends in Philadelphia had heard nothing from or about him in the last five years until the volunteers called to notify them of his death.

“It has truly been a very difficult time for me ever since then and continues to be,” Williams said. “Yet, I am able to find peace in the fact that Steve was there for my dad until the very last moment of his life and after.”

Williams will plan his dad’s interment in Philadelphia. Until then, a volunteer retains Smith’s ashes. Hawkins said many of the volunteers plan to attend the burial.

“I personally cannot wait to meet the many men that were so instrumental in touching so many people’s lives, especially that of my father,” Williams said. “My dad was truly blessed to have them in his life, as am I. It brings me such joy knowing there are people out there so caring and so passionate to make a difference in people’s lives. I am forever grateful to these men for all that they have done for my father and for me. I truly do thank God for the support, love and thoughtfulness they have bestowed upon my father and so many others.”

For information about volunteering at the Dorothy Day Center’s overflow shelter, contact Steve Hawkins at (612) 916-7495 or hawkins.steven1969@gmail.com.

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Category: Featured, Memorial Day