Unraveling The Mystery Of Charlie Death Reveals Man’s Transformation Through Life
Charlie MacNamara was a mystery.
His death from cancer last week brought together people who knew him as either a well-dressed accountant who loved to gamble, a street person with no last name, or a guardian angel to Catholic school children.
No one knew his whole story.
The revelations about MacNamara began unfolding Tuesday, 25 minutes before his memorial service.
The Rev. Joe Weitensteiner, whose parish hired MacNamara as a janitor, was preparing for the funeral Mass when the telephone rang. On the other end, the voice announced itself as MacNamara’s wife of 22 years.
“I always knew there was more to Charlie than we saw,” the priest said. “Suddenly things became so much clearer.”
As the people who knew MacNamara met for the first time last week to piece together his broken life, the story that emerged is not about a good man gone bad or a bad man turned good.
It’s a tale of transformation, says Peggy Kennedy, the Holy Names sister who plucked MacNamara off the street 12 years ago. It’s about alienation and redemption, guilt and atonement.
“Whether we know it or not, we each live out death and resurrection in our lives,” Kennedy says. “Charlie was doing that in a way that changed him and changed others.”
Even in death, MacNamara continues to change those who knew him.
The business man
Charlie MacNamara came to Spokane in the late 1950s to work at Gonzaga University in the treasurer’s office. He had just graduated from St. Martin’s College in Olympia with an accounting degree.
Raised by his father after his mother died, MacNamara grew up poor in Boise. After getting a job, he soon learned to appreciate life’s finer things - nice clothes, dining out, the things he’d been denied as a child.
Washington Appeals Court Judge John Schultheis was enrolled in GU’s law school when he met MacNamara.
“Charlie made a real study of playing the horses,” Schultheis says. “And he made a lot of money at it, at least that’s what he told me.”
Through MacNamara, Schultheis landed his first job, working with defense attorney Mike Hemovich. Both lawyers were in MacNamara’s wedding, a big, Irish affair in Montana in 1961.
“He was the kindest person I ever met,” says MacNamara’s ex-wife, who didn’t want her name used for this story. “He was a gentle person, very social. I can’t believe what happened to him.”
In the early years of their marriage, the MacNamaras formed a tight social circle of primarily affluent, young, Catholic couples.
“We had a nice life, a nice house, nice things,” his former wife says. Although they wanted children, that never happened.
“Maybe God decided this just wouldn’t be a very good family,” she says.
MacNamara quit his job at Gonzaga a few years after he got married, convinced he could make more money in business for himself. He started several ventures in the mid-1960s with various friends, but the deals inevitably soured, his ex-wife says.
While her job as a hospital dietician supported them, he lost more and more money, she says. He continued to gamble, or invest in get-rich quick schemes. Their debts grew.
“Suddenly there was no money, after there had been a lot,” she says. “His salary wasn’t as good as mine and that was hard for him.”
MacNamara slowly withdrew, first from his friends in the late 1960s and then from his wife throughout the 1970s.
“He just dropped out of sight,” Schultheis says. “No one knew what happened to him.”
At his wife’s insistence, the couple separated in 1980 and he moved into an apartment in Browne’s Addition. She paid the rent and gave him spending money. But when she stopped by to visit, the cupboards were empty. So she bought him groceries too.
Whether it was disappointment over failed dreams, shame for failing to provide for his wife or a gambling addiction, MacNamara became emotionally paralyzed.
“He just wasn’t into reality. He kept saying that things would be fine,” his wife says. “I don’t know what was wrong with him.”
She filed for divorce in 1983 and stopped paying the rent on the apartment shortly after that.
“I knew I wasn’t helping him by just providing for him,” she says. “He wouldn’t go out and help himself.”
She last saw him more than 13 years ago, during his final month in the apartment. Since then, she says, she has lived with the guilt of knowing she turned him out on the streets.
She occasionally would drive through downtown looking into the faces of the transients, searching for the bright blue Irish eyes she fell in love with.
“I think he saw it as I abandoned him,” she says. “But I just couldn’t take it anymore. I just gave up.”
The moment Sister Peggy Kennedy saw MacNamara in her downtown soup kitchen in the mid-1980s, she knew he was different than other homeless men who came through the line.
His education was obvious and he made friends with several Catholic sisters working as missionaries downtown.
“He clearly had some social skills. He was able to engage the other person,” says Cathy Beckley, another Holy Names sister who worked downtown.
He talked at length about his home in High Bridge Park. He also talked about literature, suicide and God.
MacNamara told stories of riding the rails with other transients, and often getting robbed by other street people.
“He felt he had somehow alienated himself from others or from God,” Beckley says. “We talked about making amends and about God’s forgiveness. But he felt that he had transgressed in a way that would be very difficult.”
Pushing 60, he was too old to be living outside. When Sister Kennedy heard that St. Patrick’s Parish and school in Hillyard was looking for a handyman in the fall of 1984, she hunted MacNamara down and goaded him until he took the job.
“Clearly this man had hit bottom,” she says. “By the time I knew him he was at a point of self-acceptance.”
At St. Patrick’s, MacNamara never made any promises. He once said, “You see the clouds? I’m like them, I could be gone tomorrow.”
He gradually became an integral part of the parish, rebuilding the boiler, watching over the school children during recess and lending an ear to anyone who needed to talk.
Father Weitensteiner said MacNamara would join him for coffee in the rectory and chuckle as the priest labored over the parish financial books.
For more than a year, MacNamara remained homeless, walking to Hillyard from downtown for work each day. The priest realized MacNamara was still living outside when, after the first snow of 1985 turned the city white, the janitor announced: “They painted my room.” When a parish-owned house opened up, the priest loaned it to MacNamara.
Holy Names Sister Dolores Ann McDonald, 84, joined McNamara in the school’s boiler room for coffee and a small breakfast every morning at 5:30. What meals he didn’t eat at the school were provided by McDonald and the other sisters living at the nearby convent.
Weitensteiner says it is a testament both to MacNamara and the parish that the arrangement lasted for 12 years.
“Charlie was kind of down and out, and this parish represented the presence of Jesus by welcoming him into their hearts,” he says. “The community was really good to him and in return he just gave where ever there was a need. We never knew his last name, so I called him Charlie Angel.”
But the mystery remained. Only the principal of the school knew his last name. Except for the hundreds of lottery tickets found in his house, no one knows where he spent his modest salary. Most Friday nights he would leave and not return until Sunday afternoon. His weekend whereabouts are a part of the puzzle.
He never told anyone about his past. He deliberately misled some, saying he and his wife had lived on a ranch in Montana.
For several years, Judge Schultheis joined parishioners at St. Patrick’s in serving a free Thanksgiving meal. At times, Weitensteiner says, the old friends stood only 20 feet apart.
“Isn’t that sad,” the judge says, convinced MacNamara recognized him. “But maybe that’s the way he wanted it.”
After looking at photographs of her husband taken at St. Patrick’s, his ex-wife says she could have walked past him on the street and not recognized him.
His short black hair had thinned, grown long and turned gray. His sharp jawline was buried beneath a full gray beard.
“To look at him, you might think he was mentally ill,” says Laura Thompson, a member of St. Patrick’s who viewed MacNamara as a father figure. “But after you talked to him only for a little while, you knew that wasn’t true.”
Over the last three years, MacNamara’s health grew worse. Weitensteiner says he begged him to see a doctor. He always refused.
He got so weak he had to take long breaks after setting out a lawn sprinkler. Finally, two weeks ago, school employees found him hiding in the boiler room, in too much pain to move.
He died two days later at Holy Family Hospital, his body ravaged by cancer. He was 69 years old.
Pain and comfort
MacNamara’s former wife always thought a police officer would knock on her door one day to say her ex-husband’s body had been found in an alley. She never imagined she would run across his name in the newspaper death notices, placed there by people who loved him.
“I’m really mad as hell,” she says. “He could have let me know … All those years.”
As the people who knew the accountant and the people who knew the janitor compare notes, the consistent threads to his life emerge.
He was a sports fanatic, going to Saturday Mass in his early life so he could watch football on Sundays. St. Patrick’s teachers would find him in the evenings watching football and baseball games on the school’s television.
He was a voracious reader. “Not the paperback kind of stuff, but the classics,” his ex-wife says. St. Patrick’s parishioners often saw him at Hillyard branch of the Spokane Public Library.
Although the similarities are comforting, the differences are painful, his former wife says.
“A handyman? Fixing things up? He never did any of that,” she marvels. “Walking people to their cars? Looking out for them? I was always the strong one. I think back and maybe I didn’t allow him to take care of me.”
Those who knew him in his early life describe him as a man who was friendly and kind. Those who knew him as an indigent depict a man who “radiated a love toward humanity.
“Often that kind of deepness in a soul comes from a deep degree of suffering that we reconcile,” Sister Kennedy says. “He wasn’t a saint, but he was clearly a man whose soul was rich.”
MacNamara’s ex-wife drove the three miles from her home to St. Patrick’s school on Thursday to donate to a scholarship fund established in her ex-husband’s name.
“I think it’s wonderful what they’ve done,” she says. “And I kind of want to pay them back for taking care of Charlie for all those years.”
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