Whether you realize it or not, you probably saw Gary Edwards, known to many as the “Walking Man.”
He was a man in motion. For at least 20 years, he walked mile after mile around Columbia every day — sometimes in a straight-ahead stride, and other times, in a more halting way that involved stopping, turning, looking and then resuming.
Edwards died Sunday, July 26, 2020. He was 65.
The cause of death was thought to be a heart attack, though autopsy results were not yet available, his aunt, Marilyn Lee, said.
Originally from Carol Stream, Illinois, Edwards was born Jan. 10, 1955. Growing up, he, his parents and siblings were “happy, loved each other and had a happy home life,” said his aunt, who lives in Marion, Illinois.
Lee said Edwards led an ordinary life in his early years. He graduated from Glenbard North High School and worked at his uncle’s catalog store for a short time.
Not long afterward, Edwards developed multiple mental illnesses that caused him to leave Carol Stream, his aunt recalled. He made his way to Columbia and, eventually, the homeless shelter, St. Francis House.
Steve Jacobs, co-founder of the shelter, first noticed him around town about 20 years ago when Edwards showed up for dinner at Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen.
When the kitchen had to be sprayed for bugs and people had to be fed at St. Francis House, Edwards came for a meal and kept coming back.
“He would come in every day, and we’d let him sleep in the same spot. He wore out about 15 or 20 couches in the years that he stayed with us,” Jacobs said.
St. Francis House quickly became home to Edwards, as he returned there every night after walking all day.
“You’d see him sometimes as far as 10, 12 miles away from town,” Jacobs said. “Sometimes he’d be walking along I-70. But mostly he had a route that always seemed to take him through the intersection of Broadway and Providence. I must have seen him a dozen times or so over the years.”
Although Edwards returned to St. Francis House after his walks, it wasn’t to socialize. He kept to himself in an alcove away from others, not taking part in conversations.
“You could tell that he was just kind of anxious when people got too close to him,” Jacobs said. “It just made him uncomfortable.”
When that happened, he would just stand up and walk away.
“He would go outside, walk around the house a couple of times and then come back in,” Jacobs said. “That’s how he coped with people asking him questions.”
But he did talk, occasionally. Kyle Jones, a Catholic worker at St. Francis House, recalled a time when he and Edwards were waiting for St. Francis House to open and had a brief conversation about the events of Edwards’ day.
“It was just one of those things where I was trying to keep that conversation going and just grinning from ear to ear because he was verbalizing,” Jones said.
Because of Edwards’ quiet and reserve, as well as his obsessive compulsive rituals and ticks, he was occasionally bullied by members of the public and homeless people at St. Francis House who weren’t familiar with him. But there were always people at St. Francis House, in the homeless community and Columbia who looked out for him.
“He really couldn’t fend for himself, so we stepped in,” Jones said. “We were the ones who were like the older siblings saying, ‘Hey, this is our sibling, leave them alone.’”
For Edwards, St. Francis House was a place where he could be safe and be himself, said Catholic worker Kristen Jameson.
“He learned to live with (his mental illnesses) in his own way, and he knew that we were going to let him do that, when probably nobody else in this whole world would probably allow him to be himself,” Jameson said.
“Out of this entire world, this is the one place where he felt safe,” Jones said
Edwards gave St. Francis House as much as the Catholic workers gave him, they said.
“People like (Gary) give us an opportunity to be human,” Jacobs said. “And part of the really best aspects of being human is that we look out after one another, we’re social creatures.
“But when we find someone who’s having difficulty being a part of the group, we remind ourselves that they’re still part of our family.”
Silently, Edwards “taught you so many lessons about who you were and helped you grow,” Jameson said. She said that’s why he was known as “Spirit,” because “he helped you to have patience and more understanding about the human spirit.”
Although the loss of Edwards feels like the loss of the spirit of St. Francis House, Jameson said he can “finally rest those legs of his.”