G.O. Pitney: Remembering Rockford’s ‘Shepherd of the Streets’

Holidays 2010

Gerald O. Pitney devoted most of his adult life to serving the needy and homeless through the Rockford Rescue Mission. G.O., who died Aug. 8, and his wife Nadine, who died two years ago, together might have been the closest thing this community has ever seen to Mother Teresa.

“Jerry and Nadine gave all of themselves in a way that few people have ever experienced,” said longtime Mission staffer Gene Covault, one of the speakers at G.O.’s funeral.

The Pitneys didn’t start the Rescue Mission – Ray Stewart did – but by the end of its first year of operation in 1964, they were running it. Their names remain synonymous with the Mission and its very basic work: providing food and shelter, in the name of Jesus, to those who have no place else to turn.

For a couple who earlier had set sights on being foreign missionaries, this was as unglamorous as ministry could get. Working with alcoholics at street level can get violent and ugly. G.O. routinely would break up fights; both regularly cleaned up vomit and worse … and all for barely a salary and certainly no glory at the time. “This work is a killer, and not for the faint-hearted, G.O. once wrote. “It’s where heaven meets hell every day.”

A few years ago, while being interviewed for the book, “Rescuing the Raggedy Man,” G.O. and Nadine sat in their living room and recounted hours’ worth of stories from their decades of running the Mission. At the end of each interview session, they would apologize for wasting the interviewer’s time. In reality, what those stories were doing was revealing their hearts. Virtually every conversation would include their tears of compassion for hurting people – whether it was about something that happened 40 years ago or a week ago.

 “The main qualification for working at a rescue mission is a servant’s spirit,” G.O. once said. “Jesus told His followers, ‘I came not to be served, but to serve and give my life as ransom for many.’ Mark 10 says, ‘If anyone be great among you, let him be a servant. Anyone who aspires to be chief, let him be servant of all.’”

In the 1960s, a local businessman asked G.O., “Why do you operate such a place for those drunks? They are all no good. You’re just wasting your time.” Because others were saying the same kinds of things, G.O. responded in The Rescuer newsletter: “In case someone else might wonder, let me state our purpose. We are here carrying on the unfinished business of Christ who said, “As my Father hath sent me, so I send you.” It was the main business of the Master to seek and save lost humanity, and we are simply making His business our business.”

At the funeral service for Rockford’s “Shepherd of the Streets,” speakers and attendees included some of the most successful business people in the community and, at least by the world’s standards, some of the least successful. All stood on equal footing in talking about a man who made a larger impact on the city than just about anyone else.

One speaker told of a city council meeting when G.O. gave a hellfire and brimstone presentation against the idea of granting of additional liquor licenses. Never the most fashionable man, he wore his trademark cowboy hat and suit.

After G.O. left, some of the aldermen poked fun at him.

One alderman, Frank Beach, took his colleagues to task. This man has devoted his life to serving the poor, Beach told them. He cleans up their vomit. He does things that we, the city, should be doing, too.

That ended the mockery.

It’s ironic how people who are obsessed with building their earthly legacy so often end up either humbled or shamed … while people like the Pitneys, who quietly serve the least in society, end up looking the most like Jesus.

 “This man lived out the Sermon on the Mount,” Pastor Herman Brown said during the funeral. “He was a person devoid of pride.” 

 — by Jim Killam


Friends remember Rev. G.O. Pitney

"He was bull-headed, steadfast, and committed to the cause of Christ. I’m sure God smiled when he saw him walk into heaven and said, 'Well done, good and faithfull servant.' I’m proud to have known him  as my brother in Christ."

Bill Snyder, Former Mission Board Chairman 

"I believe the portion of scripture in 2 Timothy 6-8 sums his life up better than I could put it, particularly in the Peterson translation, The Message: 'You take over. I’m about to die, my life an offering on God’s altar. This is the only race worth running. I’ve run hard right to the finish, believed all the way. All that’s left now is the shouting – God’s applause!  Depend on it, He’s an honest judge. He’ll do right not only by me, but by everyone eager for His coming!'

That pretty much says it all.

C. W. Inskeep, Former Mission Board Member