He’s known as Charlie Brown on the street. But when Charlie Helton unfolded out of his front row seat, people under the funeral tent didn’t know what to make of this imposing figure. His unruly beard was out of control, his Army fatigue jacket was tattered and his eyes were blazing as he stood in front of a shiny blue coffin.
Ten days ago, Paul Garner froze to death on a bleak vacant lot downtown and now he was about to be buried. A minister quoted familiar scriptures and a singer shared a sweet rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Now it was Helton’s turn to talk about a man with whom he walked the streets.
“Me and Paul were drinking buddies,” he announced. “We always said that when one of us died, the other one would toast him with a cold beer. I brought one, but I’m not gonna open it out of respect.”
The next sound you heard was a sigh of relief from the unlikely group of mourners who came out on a windy afternoon to honor a person who the world seemed to forget.
Some were classmates from Baker High who remembered Paul Garner as a class clown who could turn anything into a quip and who was smart enough to survive 20 years on the street. They huddled under the tent with a scruffy group of street people who talked about Garner living in a tent in back of a Winn Dixie located a few blocks from Oakland Park where he had grown up.
When all of the words were spoken, the message was clear. Paul Garner was lost for 20 years but Friday he was found.
On Jan. 7, another homeless person discovered a body in a vacant lot downtown and old friends were shocked to find out it was Garner, a gifted musician and brilliant student who everyone believed would be somebody.
Caring classmates from Baker stepped in when they learned that he was headed to a pauper’s burial in a $19.00 plywood box. They were as upset about that as they were his death.
“Once a Lion, always a Lion. We couldn’t let one of our own be buried a pauper. We had to do something,” said Joyce Dent-Fitzpatrick, who graduated with Garner in the class of 1980.
She’s a lieutenant with the Columbus Police Department and she discovered that one of her patrol officers came upon Garner on the night of death and advised him to get inside out of the 12 degree temperatures.
“He said he would be all right,” she said.
Dent-Fitzpatrick joined forces with Toni Wolfe, who used to be a neighbor of Garner on Ramsey Street in Oakland Park. The beauty of Friday’s memorial was the fruit of their efforts.
“We wanted him to know we cared,” Wolfe said.
With the help of Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan, their persistence turned that plywood box into a proper coffin surrounded by flowers that were blue and white — Baker’s school colors. Then came a call from an anonymous person who offered a burial plot at Parkhill Cemetery.
He was a pauper no more.
People from the past knew Garner as a student that never had to study, including a science teacher who thought he would end up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“He was right in there with the brightest,” Charlie Liner said.
Dent-Firzpatrick said he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder before the diagnosis became so popular.
“He was always cutting up. I remember teachers saying: ‘Sit down, Paul. Be quiet, Paul. Get in your seat, Paul.’ We didn’t care. We loved him.”
Tommy Johnson came all the way from Florida for Friday’s memorial. He talked about Garner’s carefree spirit and how he was always real. “He was just Paul. I remember when we took the College Board Exam, he made 1,400 without even trying.”
Old friends also remembered his spotty home life and how after high school he began to suffer from seizures. As he spiraled into years of substance abuse, his troubles mounted. Mug shots from the Muscogee County Jail over the years are startling reminders of his decline. Things that were once an embarrassment became acceptable.
Scott Garnett, a friend from kindergarten through high school, had a glimpse of what life was like for him.
“I saw Paul four or five years and I could tell how bad it was by looking at him. He wasn’t one to talk about his life but I knew.”
So did Maurice Owens, another friend from the past.
“I looked at his eyes and said, ‘I know you.’ He was living behind the grocery store then but he was still good people.”
Many people in the community hoped his death would draw attention to the needs of the growing homeless population in Columbus. But at Friday’s service, people realized the fight begins with them.
“I may have passed him hundreds of times on patrol. But most of us never make eye contact when we come upon a homeless person. We look the other way,” Dent-Fitzpatrick said.
The Rev. John Boulinau of Open Door Community Center conducted the memorial. He told mourners that we have to be willing to get down in the ditch and get dirty.
“We have to let these people know they’re not alone,” he said.
Iva Parsons’ story came from another direction. Years on the street have aged her and the skin on her face resembles rough sandpaper. But when she spoke she was eloquent, possessing the syntax of a gifted poet as she described Garner.
“He did crossword puzzles in ink,” she said.
She cared for Garner in a way that defies description. She was also honest.
“I remember asking him what he wanted on his hamburger,” she laughed. “He said beer.”
Then she got serious.
“He didn’t deserve to die this way,” she said. “But where he is he isn’t hurting anymore — and he isn’t cold.”