Grace: Once homeless and an addict, survivor now aids others' paths to redemption - Omaha.com
Published Friday, October 4, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:22 am
Grace: Once homeless and an addict, survivor now aids others' paths to redemption

The archbishop is coming. So is the mayor, the city councilman for South Omaha and a man you probably don't know.

They are meeting today on a busy stretch of Q Street to turn earth on the Stephen Center's new $12 million building for the homeless.

But only one of their names is going up on this building.

And that belongs to the man who once was homeless, the man who has known addiction and has crushed his family, the man who for the past six years has been living sober and seeking redemption.

That man is Rick Pettigrew.

Next year, when the broke and desperate seek help at 28th and Q, it will be the Pettigrew Emergency Shelter that will open its doors. It may even be Rick, who will be 61 then, greeting them with a smile and rueful “been there, done that” story.

* * *

Life dealt Rick Pettigrew a good hand.

He had upper-middle-class parents, a beautiful home in an up-and-coming area and a solid education at Omaha Westside and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He also saw early success in a sales career that started in the mid-1980s and rewarded him with fancy cars, nice houses and rides on corporate jets.

But he paid a price. The on-the-road nature of sales was hard and lonely. Rick turned to alcohol, and his first marriage broke up.

He remarried and decided on work where he could stay put. In 1996, Rick and his second wife moved to Las Vegas and opened a deli behind the Stardust Hotel.

But the pair got sucked into a drug addiction so powerful, it cost them nearly everything. They lost their savings, their five-bedroom home, their Jaguar and Rick's pride, a 1968 GTO Classic.

To get clean, they decided to leave Las Vegas and drive across America until they found a city where they could start over.

But at every stop, they would buy drugs, get high and keep heading east.

Finally, in Charlotte, N.C., they couldn't go any farther.

“We were running out of country,” Rick said.

Their downward spiral continued. They ran out of money.

“We got to where we had literally no food — one box of Cream of Wheat in the whole place,” Rick said. “Not anything in the fridge.”

The couple argued viciously. Rick would leave for days at a time, living on the street. For about nine months, he was intermittently homeless.

They split in 1999.

* * *

Rick landed back in Omaha.

He had lost significant weight and half his teeth. He returned to his childhood home near 93rd and Shirley Streets, moved in with his widowed mother, Frances, and spent her money on drugs.

He once took $1,000 to buy crack and was beaten and robbed. Bleeding, he realized he had $20 at home, drove back to get it, and returned to the spot where he was robbed to try again to buy crack. That's how bad he wanted to get high.

Coming down off the high was awful. Eventually, the awfulness of coming down trumped the good feeling Rick got when he was high.

So he gave up crack and turned to alcohol, nearly drinking himself to death.

Over the years, Rick went to rehab, the hospital and Alcoholics Anonymous. He quit drinking. About 100 times.

Finally, one of those times stuck. He got sober. He quit going to AA — the daily meetings, he said, made him think about drinking.

He began going to a place that helps drunks and junkies and people who aren't addicts but have no money and need a place to sleep.

He began going to the Stephen Center.

* * *

Rick Pettigrew did not go to the Stephen Center for a roof or a meal or rehab.

Rick Pettigrew went to the shelter for something else.

Call it hope. Or redemption.

At the South Omaha shelter, in the broken lives of people who reminded him of himself and in those toiling behind the scenes to help, Rick Pettigrew found a way forward.

He saw a new purpose for his life and wanted to help.

His first volunteer assignment was to sit at the front door and log in people who come and go. Then he answered phones. He took applications. He handed out toothbrushes.

The work made him feel good. It also broke his heart.

Take the time he checked in a man who pulled his ID out of a stack of cards held together by a rubber band.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

“You don't have a wallet?” Rick had asked him.

“No,” the man had said.

Rick took his own wallet and gave it to him. The man teared up.

Rick later said he experienced a high no drug had ever given him.

“I didn't save a life or anything,” he said.

But he had made a connection.

* * *

The connections, over the past six years, have sustained him.

Rick's mother died in 2008. Rick remained in his family home and lives off earnings from investment returns.

But his second home has been the Stephen Center.

He still volunteers there. He serves on the nonprofit's board.

He has donated $195,000 toward the shelter's new facility, which is scheduled to open next year. Rick's total gifts sit at $270,000, making him the shelter's largest individual donor.

The new building will hold 62 apartments and the 68-bed shelter, to be called the Pettigrew Emergency Shelter.

Typically you have to be a titan of industry or historical hero to get your name on a building. Rick Pettigrew is neither.

But he is something else, something arguably more relevant to those who will pass through the shelter doors.

Rick Pettigrew is a survivor.

Maybe his is the best name that could go on a building like this.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace

erin.grace@owh.com    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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