I have attended more than 100 funerals, but save services for my closest family, I have never been more moved at one than I was today for the funeral of a 62-year-old homeless man who was stabbed to death two weeks ago near Nickerson Gardens.
I called him the "I'm Blessed Man" here when I wrote of his ignominious St. Valentine's Day death on 112th Street and Evers around 6:30 p.m., his body found laying face down, half on the sidewalk, half on a brown lawn next to a chain link fence and a plant. That's what he would say, "I'm blessed", whenever a lady - the lady who found him laid out - would ask him how he was doing. I was struck how no one I talked to the next day in the projects, the tightest-knit community in town, knew who this guy was. So I vowed to find out.
He was Samuel Lee Benton, Jr., born Nov 4, 1951 and raised in Compton, on Piru Street. He graduated from Centennial High School and enlisted and served in the United States Marine Corps as a medic in Vietnam. He was well-read, a jack-of-all-trades, a single man eager to help his family and friends. He was a car salesman at Sopp Chevrolet in Bell. But, after he lost that job, he started to skid. He lived in the small homeless encampment near the 105 Freeway and Central Avenue where he panhandled the off-ramps .He was a crack smoker.
And as addled by drugs as he was, Sam would tell anyone who bothered to ask how he was that he was "blessed."
"When i read what you wrote about Sam always saying 'I'm blessed', I thought, yeah, that was my brother," said Dianne Grey a few days ago as she and her sister and daughter reminisced about Sam Benton..
But, you never can know a stranger until you go to their funeral.
I didn't know what to expect as I drove toward the funeral at the Simpson Family Mortuary in Inglewood. Would there be only the family I had visited? Maybe Cousin Keith, who I talked to, also. Maybe a few of the homeless, though i doubted that. So when I pulled into the packed parking lot off Manchester near Crenshaw, I thought maybe there was another funeral going on there as well as Benton's. I even asked someone "Is this for Sam Benton?" It was..
Inside the Chapel of Roses were roughly 100 impeccably-dressed family and friends of Sam who shed few tears, perhaps because the shock of the two-week-old homicide had subsided.
Still, on this very rainy day, most seemed surprised, if not alarmed, to hear the words of Sam himself. On a February 28th, nine or 10 years ago, Sam Benton was sitting on the porch of his "Grannies" house on Piru Street when friend and neighbor Kim Curry-Goldsby walked up.
"I want you to read this at my funeral," Sam told Kim, adding "Promise me you'll read this at my funeral," Curry-Goldsby promised she would with one condition; That he accept the lord. He did.
Today, Kim Curry-Goldsby, looked back at the American flag-draped coffin holding Samuel Lee Benton, Jr, and made good on her promise.
"I can no longer afford to be nonchalant about my future. Today will be the day my life becomes on track. Life not is a total bust. I need to make a drastic change. I'm making a mistake only living one day at a time."
Curry-Goldsby went on reading more of Benton's words, then added that the paper was signed "February 28, but no year listed. It was either 2004 or 2005. I can't remember. Anyway, his funeral was supposed to be yesterday, February 28."
Then the song "Goin' Up Yonder" by Walter Hawkins and Lady Tramaine came on. If ever a song and moment went together, it was right here and now.
"If you want to know ... where I'm going...., where i"m going ...soon,........ if anybody asks you....., .where I'm going....... where I'm going....., soon. ......I'm goin' up yonder...... I'm goin' up yonder....I'm going up yonder... to be with my Lord."
Man, I'm not religious but, Jesus, hearing that song in that setting. that got to me. I hope you listen to that song. Here it is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGBr42HNlKY
After that song, Rev. D. D. Alexander spoke eloquently, not just about Benton, but about the homeless in general. "Sometimes we need to look at a person through their eyes. Sam, in his own way, was successful. Now Sam is done with the troubles of this world."
Others spoke fondly of Sam. "Sam had a lot of love," said a man who would only give his name as Dave. His sisters, his family, his friends would come by the off ramp and give him food, give him some money. They want him to come home, but Sam didn't want to be a burden to anyone."
His niece Tanisha said her uncle was a good handyman and always there for her when she needed him. "Whenever he came over, I was like thinking, 'What do I need fixing?'" He will forever be missed. I love you Uncle Sam.".
One of Sam's sisters, who works near Watts and didn't want her name used, said "He said he some some action in Vietnam, but not a lot. He didn't talk about it. When he came back from Vietnam i was so happy to see him, I just hugged him hard and i didn't notice anything wrong with him."
Another sister spoke about how it was difficult to know her brother was out on the streets, but she had come to accept it.
"A lot people, see someone living on the streets and think, 'How does someone's family member end up like that?'", said Benton's sister Dianne Gray. "I still don't understand it. But, Sam, he really was content. He really meant it when he said he was blessed. You're thinking outwardly he looks like a bum. But, inside, deep down he meanI it. I heard someone said Sam thought he was blessed. My brother knew he was blessed.'
And that plant his head lay next to as he bled to death on East 112th Street, four miles from his sister Dianne's home on West 112th., it was a Bird of Paradise. That's high drama, I know. But, it's true .
LAPD Criminal Gang Homicide Division detectives Pete McCoy and James Jameson are actively working the case. The coroner's office said he was killed by a single knife wound to the chest. If anyone has information about who killed Sam Benton, call (213) 485-4341.