James “Dean” Masters spent the past quarter of a century watching over his corner of southeast Kansas City.
The 75-year-old Vietnam War veteran was known to appear outside his neighbors’ doors with a van full of food ready to give away. If he met someone without a home, he offered them his spare bedroom.
Masters recently welcomed a woman into that guest room as she searched for more permanent housing. When his small white house in the 8000 block of South Benton Avenue went up in flames early Tuesday, firefighters found him in the hallway, shielding her with his body, Masters’ family said they were told by the first responders.
She lived. He did not.
The woman was hospitalized, officials said. The cause of the fire, which sprang to life near the back of the home about 4 a.m. Tuesday, is still under investigation.
“He gave his last breath for a stranger, for somebody he hadn’t known for but a couple months,” one of Masters’ daughters, Carmen Forbes, said Thursday, standing outside the charred home. “It made it easier to know that he did die a hero.”
Despite the heroic events family recounted at the time of his death, loved ones and friends said Masters was already a hero to those who knew him in his everyday life.
A veteran and family man
Forbes, 44, of Glasgow, Missouri, clutched her father’s honorable discharge papers as she spoke. He left the U.S. Air Force in 1967 after serving three tours and working his way up to technical sergeant.
She recalled how decades later, stateside and with 11 children and stepchildren and about 60 grandchildren by last count, Masters had a firm grasp on his tradition of hosting large holiday feasts.
“Christmas dinners are never family dinners, they’re like community dinners,” Forbes said of holidays gathered in the basement of Newlife FCF church across the street from her dad’s.
She joked that at times he’d be late for his own dinner because he was picking people up or wrapping last-minute gifts.
“You didn’t know my dad and go hungry,” Forbes said. “You didn’t know my dad and not have clothes on your back.”
Family and friends gathered Thursday afternoon around the tailgate of a pickup parked outside the pink siding of Newlife FCF, exchanging photos of Masters on their phones.
They described him as broad-shouldered, his glasses usually sitting beneath a ballcap decked out in military pins. He was smiley, kind and occasionally ornery. When he needed a getaway, he went to Branson.
Forbes said while her father experienced hardship in his life, including war, divorce and cancer, he shouldered his burdens quietly.
What he carried more obviously, however, was a large assortment of pens and notes, loved ones recalled. Masters was often spotted walking with breast pockets bulging from the weight of odds and ends he kept handy.
Maye Smith likes to joke she was first introduced to Masters in the mid-1990s, when he picked her up on the corner. She waits a second, and then adds that the corner was a Metro stop and that Masters was the bus driver.
Her transit often merged with his. They’d start talking and before she knew it, she’d have gone from one end of the route to the next without getting off.
They developed a friendship over the years, said Smith, 51. He invited her to visit his church, Newlife FCF, countless times since they met. She eventually agreed.
Smith started going once a month, then twice. Nine years later, she’s a regular.
She last saw Masters on Friday, when he stopped by the McDonald’s drive-thru where she works. He ordered a sausage Egg McMuffin with coffee. She pretended his total was $35.
“He was my taxi cab for a long time,” Smith said.
When she needed rides to the doctor, he picked her up and dropped her off. When she didn’t have the money for food, he loaned her some.
Masters became like a second father to Smith. When her father passed away, Smith said, she called Masters.
“He was God’s friend in every sense of the word,” Forbes said of her father, who toted his children around to three church services every Sunday growing up.
“His faith motivated him. He believed in God with his whole heart.”
A life of volunteerism
If The Rev. Tim Willard pulled up to Newlife FCF and didn’t see Masters’ van in the neighboring driveway, he usually figured the man was off picking up groceries for someone again.
Willard, 54, of Greenwood, serves with his wife as pastors at the church. He said he could go on and on about how Masters served his community, and he did.
Masters took neighbors without cars to pick up prescriptions from the pharmacy. When boxed macaroni and cheese went on sale, Masters bought two cases to drop off at a food pantry. He helped bus kids at a nearby daycare on field trips. When pregnant women at a local shelter had doctor’s appointments, he’d help escort the mothers-to-be to their visits.
And on Sundays, he acted as a personal chauffeur for the believers.
“It didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing, he’d get in that church van and he’d go pick up people so they could come to the house of the Lord,” Willard said.
Willard woke up Tuesday to a call from a neighbor of Masters’. When the pastor arrived to the scene of fire truck and flashing lights, he ushered the growing group of family into the church, sheltering them from the chilly morning. Some women from the church made them pancakes.
Willard dropped by Masters’ home a few days before he died. They sat in his book-filled study as Masters explained how he spent $480 of his government stimulus check on cosmetic products and soap to give away to those in need.
When Willard stopped by the home after the fire, the study, was singed and sooty. His chair and desk, where he prayed each morning, were still intact.
The next time the church is full, Masters’ spot in the third row from the back will be empty.
Masters’ family is still trying to decide which three children will stay behind as the others bury their father. With the pastor and the funeral director in attendance, only eight other people will be allowed into the funeral and then burial, keeping in line with city orders to limit crowds to 10 amid the coroanavirus pandemic.
White flakes floated down as the breeze picked up, ashes from the scorched home sitting a few yards away across the street. The mailman drove up and stayed awhile, talking to Forbes.
Forbes said it’s been difficult to see her father’s life scattered across the ground. Mementos they would’ve passed down through generations are now unrecognizable. But, she added, she has much more left of him than the ruins at her feet.
She recalled one of her father’s oft-spoken phrases before extending her arms to another neighbor making their way down the street.
“A stranger is simply a friend you haven’t met yet.”
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