As most of you know, last night Pat Fitzpatrick received the Martin Luther King Hall of Fame Award for 2011. After Pat was chosen for this award, Commissioner Long asked me to write a tribute to Pat to be used at the banquet. I am reprinting it here.
I met Pat Fitzpatrick in 1995 when I was volunteering at St. Francis House and he was serving on the Board of Directors there. Unlike many board members, Pat was a ‘hands on’ guy who came to the shelter frequently to help out and to spend time with the clients. He has an almost magic ability to relate to people and immediately become their friend, no matter their social status or how many problems they have. He is always honest with people about the difficulties he has faced in life and never puts himself above anyone else.
In 2002 Pat was one of the founding members of the Home Van, a mobile soup kitchen and sort of ‘free convenience store on wheels’ that goes out to homeless areas in and around downtown Gainesville. I am from New England and, without Pat, I would have felt awkward and standoffish, not knowing how to connect with street people. I just watched Pat. He would walk up to anyone, clap them on the back, and say, “Hey Brother (or Sister) how ya doin’?” with his big, irresistable Irish smile. Thanks to him the Home Van got off to a good start with the homeless folks.
In the years since, Pat has been our rock. There is nothing he won’t do – no matter how difficult or inconvenient, to help out another human being. That first winter of the Home Van was brutally cold. Now there are quite a few church groups who go out on cold nights with blankets, but in the winter of 2002-2003 we were, to the best of my knowledge, the only one. On bitter cold nights, in between our official driveouts, Pat and I would drive around with a load of blankets and two gallons of hot chocolate and look for people who were not in cold night shelter. We would literally be standing at the edge of the little wooded area across from Suwanee Swifty on South Main Street calling, “Arthur? Are you in there? Do you need another blanket? We have some hot chocolate.” Arthur, an elderly veteran, would invite us in, or maybe come hobbling out to see what we had for blankets. We would go all around the area, through parking lots, down alleys, behind dumpsters, finding folks who needed a little extra warmth.
We still go out on very cold nights. Also, we get calls about food emergencies. Someone who is staying in a motel, while receiving cancer treatments at Shands, has run out of food. I call Pat and he comes and picks up a bag of groceries. Just recently, he walked through the woods with me on a cold, rainy day to check up on a homeless man who has sickle cell anemia and bring him some desperately needed bottled water. When someone needs help, Pat is never too busy or too tired (even if he is) and it doesn’t matter how cold or how hot it is – he is always available.
I don’t know what we would do without him!