Bill McEwen

Papa Mike’s legacy: We’re at our best when we serve others

Under a 1984 mural depicting his work with the homeless, Mike McGarvin talks with Manuel Hernandez as John Bentley, right, finishes his lunch at Poverello House on Sept. 24, 2013.
Under a 1984 mural depicting his work with the homeless, Mike McGarvin talks with Manuel Hernandez as John Bentley, right, finishes his lunch at Poverello House on Sept. 24, 2013. Fresno Bee file

How many of us can say that we gave our all to something good the way Mike McGarvin did?

Papa Mike, a gentle bear of a man who favored T-shirts and bib overalls, carried Fresno’s down-and-out on his broad shoulders for nearly five decades.

He fed them when they were hungry. He sheltered them in the rain and the cold and the hottest days of summer. And when they sought counsel, he lifted them up with the words of Saint Francis of Assisi:

“Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.”

Those words had saved McGarvin. Abused as a child, he was a powderkeg of self-destruction: booze, bar fights and brushes with the law. It was in San Francisco’s Tenderloin that he met the Rev. Simon “Si” Scanlon, who ran a coffee house for street people named Poverello.

“There was this little guy serving coffee,” McGarvin told The Bee’s John Taylor in 1994. “Here I was high on drugs. Si was naturally high on Jesus. I thought, ‘I got to get me some of that. …’ 

He would volunteer at the San Francisco “Pov” for seven years before moving to Fresno, his wife Mary’s hometown, and going to work at The Bee as an engraver. Soon he was passing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the homeless out of the back of a van in the hours he wasn’t at the newspaper.

From those humble beginnings in 1973 sprang Fresno’s Poverello House and other services for people in need. McGarvin always attributed the recognition that came his way to the shelter’s staff and volunteers.

“It’s all of us working together,” he said in 2005 upon being told he was the recipient of the Pope John XXIII Award, presented by the Italian Catholic Federation for humanitarian efforts.

But McGarvin is the one who started it all. What’s more, Poverello House grew through the years to meet the need because he was the real deal. As soon as you met him, you knew it. He was gentle and bereft of ego. He led by example. His mission was to serve others.

Which he did. With passion, with dignity and without judgment.

“You love them as they are. You accept them as they are,” McGarvin often said.

All the while, McGarvin took photographs of the people he served.

Many of the pictures were haunting. Often the subjects were forlorn. There was Kenny, a man with hard eyes whom McGarvin described as “an old-time tramp.” Kenny died in the late 1980s when he stepped into the path of a car on Golden State Boulevard.

“Instead of going right into the oleanders, he went left and was hit by a Buick. At least it was quick,” McGarvin said in his just-the-facts manner.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, McGarvin took photos with a Polaroid camera. He’d hand them to the subjects, along with a stamped envelope. That way, those on the streets could send a word to someone that, yes, they were alive.

All those faces, many of them marked by exhaustion and despair. All those meals served, some of them as simple as a fruit cup. All those years battling budgets and hoping the latest fundraiser would be a success. Never did Papa Mike’s heart harden. Even the least little bit.

In 2007, McGarvin sat down again with John Taylor, for a story. He was asked about the highs and lows at Poverello House.

“The best experience has been to feed the thousands of meals a day and see the joy in the faces of those that we serve here.

“The worst experience was seeing the face of a little girl who was serving a tray to a man. She put her head down and I thought she was tired. I asked her if she wanted to sit down and she looked up with a tear in her eye and said, ‘I just fed my father.’

“This was 20 years ago and that memory has never left me.”

Now Papa Mike has left us. He died Saturday at his home next to Poverello House after being at Saint Agnes Medical Center, and there’s a hole in our hearts.

He would tell us that he’s moved up to a better place. He would tell us it’s OK to cry. And then he would tell us to keep on soldiering: We’re all at our best when we serve others.

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