After a lifetime of struggle, Pam Petz, a longtime member of Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church in Mount Vernon, died on July 22. She had been to church that morning and was eating a meal at On Our Own, a nearby drop-in center for psychiatric rehabilitation, when her heart stopped. Petz, who had a pacemaker, had just turned 51. A memorial service held Sunday, Aug. 5, saw "tremendous turnout" from the church and the surrounding community, said Keary Kincannon, head pastor at Rising Hope.
Petz’s life, said Kincannon, had not been an easy one. Physically, mentally and emotionally disabled, she had been ridiculed mercilessly in school as a child, he said. "When I met Pam, some 20 years after middle school, she still carried around some of those scars."
Darlene Runaldue attended what was then Walt Whitman Intermediate School with Petz. "I knew her because she was teased horribly in school. Just horribly," said Runaldue. "I never forgot her name, and I never forgot how she was teased." After Petz left the school with the class ahead of Runaldue’s, she did not see her again until eight or nine years ago. As a staffer at Grace Presbyterian Church, she had taken a group of youth to visit Rising Hope, which caters to the homeless and destitute of the Route 1 corridor. Petz did not recognize her, but Runaldue continued to ask about her often at the church and spoke at her memorial service.
PETZ HAD LIVED with her mother until her mother died about nine years ago, at which point, she was left homeless. She floundered until the county got her into a housing program, said Laura Derby, Rising Hope’s church administrator and a friend of Petz. "But Pam was a very lonely person," she said. "She had a really poor self-image and thought nobody would love her." When finding a husband became the focus of Petz’s energies for a few years, Derby advised her to take relationships one step at a time. "And that’s what she did when she met Earl," Derby said.
"Earl Petz made all the difference for her," said Kincannon. "It was the first time I ever saw her happy. They were just a great couple." Earl Petz also had disabilities, and the two met at a church social for people with intellectual disabilities. A year later, they were married.
"They cared a great deal about each other," said Derby. "Earl saw the inner beauty in her and was very devoted to doing whatever he could to help her, and she was very committed to Earl."
Earl Petz had lived with his father until the marriage, when the two moved into an apartment. Then began a series of evictions that eventually left the Petzs and two others living in a motel room. Earl Petz had both retirement and disability income because he had injured himself working as a custodian for Fairfax County Public Schools. However, said Kincannon, with no one to direct them, the two mismanaged their money and failed to keep up their apartment.
After being evicted from two apartments, the couple moved in with Earl Petz’s brother, who also had intellectual disabilities and the three were evicted. They moved in with a friend, and the result was the same. Earl Petz, his brother and their friend are still living at the Alexandria Motel.
All along, members of Rising Hope were staging emergency cleanups and petitioning the county for help, but they were told that the couple’s married status was a barrier to county aid, said Kincannon. "They were a hard couple to try to work with because of their disabilities," he said.
HE DESCRIBED Pam Petz as, on one hand, someone "who could irritate you to no end by being demanding, strong-willed and volatile. However," he said, "she could also be loving and compassionate and was quick to reach out to others. She was a great hugger," said Kincannon.
"She had tried volunteering as an usher, but she couldn’t stand or walk very well, so she’d sit down. Then, when people came in, she would yell at them," Kincannon chuckled. Although she could read and write, her attempts at working as a church receptionist went similarly, he said. "She would just get so rough with someone on the phone."
He noted that she would often call him to ask how he was doing, particularly if she knew he was having a difficult week. "But the conversation would always turn to food," and she would try to get invited over for dinner, he said. Men and food, said Kincannon, were "the two main themes" of Pam Petz’s life.
"One of her talents was remembering phone numbers," said Derby, noting that Petz never had to write a number down. "And she would call people over and over, just wanting to talk about what you were doing, what you were having for dinner, where you were going tonight."
"I KNOW THESE last couple of months had placed tremendous stress on her," said Kincannon, citing the couple’s homeless status, bad credit and uncertainty about the future, as well as the strain of sharing a small room with three other people. "I can’t help but just to ask if the stress played a part in her death," he said, adding that some of that stress might have been alleviated if the county could have offered some assistance with the situation.
Earl Petz, said Kincannon, is struggling to cope with the loss of his wife. "He‚s had a few moments of really breaking down," he said. Earl Petz’s father now lives in a nursing home and can no longer care for him, but Kincannon said he hopes the county might provide him with some oversight now that he is single.
Pam Petz’s mother was buried in Mount Comfort Cemetery in Alexandria, and Kincannon said he hopes to have the daughter’s cremated remains interred nearby. The church has begun collecting money and is trying to set up a memorial fund to cover the cemetery’s $3,000 cost of burial.