Richard Hyatt: Man's cold death fires others' hearts

January 16, 2014 

Paul Garner ran from his past and avoided his future. On the streets, with a belly full of booze, he thought he was invisible and invincible. Alone with himself, he was lonely, lost and fragile. He had no forwarding address and in his world few knew his name and nobody knew his story.

Most of us were introduced to Garner on a bitingly cold morning last week when another homeless person found his frozen body before the sun came up on a vacant lot on 15th Street, in crying distance of several warm and cozy missions.

Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan said he died of hypothermia — a medical term that means the 51-year-old Baker High School graduate froze to death.

A headline in the Ledger-Enquirer said a homeless man died “due to cold exposure.”

Garner’s name wasn’t mentioned until the second paragraph. His death was part of a statewide roundup about the cold weather that Monday night, listed below school closings and the unlikely shutdown of an ice skating rink in Atlanta.

We didn’t pay attention to him during the 20 years he spent on the streets of Columbus but we heard about him dying on the network news. Much of the country was blanketed with ice and snow and shivering through artic weather so CBS News must have thought it novel for a homeless man to die this far south.

Garner, 51, was one of 20 people across the country to die because of the unforgiving cold. It hurt to know that our community would lose someone with all of the local agencies we have working on this issue.

His death slapped Neil Richardson across the face. He knew Garner, who for years has been checking in and out of the Muscogee County Jail. Alcohol does that to a person and Richardson, the chaplain at the jail, has seen how it ravaged Garner.

“I enjoyed Paul,” he said. “He was a nice guy. When he came into the jail he could give up a smile and was an easy conversation — once he was sober.”

Once the coroner identified him, pieces of his story were shared by old friends at Baker High and in Oakland Park, where he grew up. When classmates learned he would be laid to rest in a pauper’s grave, the Baker family rallied. They have turned this tragic event into a sermon.

Thanks to their caring spirit, Paul Garner will receive a Christian burial at Parkhill Cemetery. A memorial will be held at 1 p.m. today with the Rev. John Boulinau of Open Door Community Center officiating.

Paul Garner was as low as a human being can be when he died but he will be buried on a hillside with a beautiful view.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net

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