ELWOOD – Jack Picciolo remembers stopping by Jim Proffitt’s old Chicago neighborhood after helping him feed homeless veterans.
The two men – veterans themselves – would talk after a day spent giving sandwiches and clothes to hundreds of veterans. What struck Picciolo about Proffitt was his immense compassion for people too poor to care for themselves.
“I don’t know how some guy could give so much to strangers,” he said.
For almost 25 years, Proffitt, with the help of family and several veteran groups, dedicated his life to helping Chicago’s homeless, many of them veterans. He died Sept. 30 from an infection in his lungs but he also struggled with leukemia. He was 65.
The impact he made on the lives of veterans, homeless and many others could be seen Tuesday at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood. Dozens of cars flowed into the cemetery – a place where Proffitt also helped homeless veterans after they died. He and others worked to find proper burial sites.
Veterans on Tuesday provided military honors for Proffitt, a Marine Corps veteran.
Proffitt was a “veteran’s veteran” with boundless energy, said Jim Singler, his friend and commander at VFW Post 12059 in Plainfield.
“He had the biggest heart in the world,” Singler said.
George Smith met Proffitt four years ago at a cancer support group. The two became friends.
“He was a just real good guy and a great friend,” Smith said.
Proffitt served in the Marines from 1969 to 1971 but never went to Vietnam, Picciolo said. Proffitt decided years later to help homeless veterans. He traveled in a station wagon to veterans with a pot of coffee and sandwiches.
He formed the Chicago Homeless Sandwich Run, which feeds more than 800 people each week. Of those, 35 to 40 percent are veterans, according to the organization’s website.
Ronald Wagenhofer, a veteran and friend, said Proffitt was intense and compassionate.
“I don’t think people in the community realize how many veteran homeless we have … they fall through the cracks, which is sad,” Wagenhofer said. “Thanks to people like Jim, we can help these people. It’s important to treat them as human beings and Jim did that.”
In honor of Proffitt’s work with veterans, a transitional living home for homeless veterans was named after him.
Veterans can be homeless for a variety of reasons, Picciolo said. Some have mental health problems and some come back from combat and “can’t cope with the world,” he said.
Proffitt, his family and other veterans would travel to Washington, D.C., every Veterans Day to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His friend Ronald Pasko said his family still is willing to make the trip this year, helping needy veterans as Proffitt would.
“Even in Washington, if there was a veteran in need of help, he would be there,” Pasko said.