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No home, but he had a place in many hearts

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He'd lived for at least a decade on a grimy sidewalk in an industrial area of South Los Angeles, just off Western Avenue.

To passers-by he might have seemed like an ugly symbol of urban blight — unkempt, unfriendly and surrounded by trash-filled shopping carts.

But to people who knew him, Chester Willis was a neighborhood treasure; a homeless man who kept the block swept clean, fed wild birds, tended stray cats and corralled abandoned dogs.

When Willis, 57, died of a heart attack last week, dozens of people turned out for a curbside tribute. They brought photos, candles, cards and bouquets — one with white carnations in the shape of a dog. They shared stories of a man who was surprisingly charming, frustratingly stubborn and unfailingly kind.

"He was a man with a great big heart," said Amanda Casarez, who runs a program that helps pet owners from the lobby of the city animal shelter, across the street from Willis' encampment.

Pigeons perched on his shoulders and ate out of his hands. Feral cats trusted him so much, he managed to round up 17 and have them neutered and spayed.

"The day after he passed was heart-wrenching," Casarez said. "The cats were sitting there on his truck and the pigeons were sitting on the wire, waiting for him to come back."

::

I'd noticed Willis on my visits to the South L.A. shelter, but I never bothered to meet him. When I read about his death on Facebook, I was struck by the sweetness of the memories and the broad reach of grief.

"Everybody's upset," said LAPD Sgt. Tami Baumann, who'd grown close enough to Willis to break the news of his death to his daughter in Atlanta. "Even the grown men [who work] at the bus depot next door; tears were welling in their eyes."

Baumann met Willis more than 10 years ago, when she began patrolling the 77th Division and found him camped on 60th Street with his two dogs. Everyone called him Wolf, his nickname since high school. She called him Mr. Willis, even when he objected.

They bonded over their love of animals, but argued over just about everything else.

She'd offer to bring him breakfast, and he'd give her detailed instructions on exactly how he wanted his Egg McMuffin prepared.

She'd take his "smelly, filthy clothes" to the laundry and pay to have them washed. "Then he'd complain that he didn't like the way the soap made them smell," she said.

"I kind of irritated him and he irritated me. But he was interesting," Baumann said. "Although he was dirty and homeless, he was not stupid. ... He wasn't somebody you feel sorry for; he was an active part of that community."

Over the years, Willis developed a network of comrades and supporters.

Downtown Dog Rescue's Lori Weise donated a van to shelter Willis and his dogs. He managed to fill it with trash and kept on sleeping outside.

Workers from the bus depot brought him food and looked after him, especially when his health began to decline a few years back, after someone absconded with his dogs. A mechanic from the depot summoned paramedics on Tuesday night when Willis went into cardiac arrest.

Neighborhood residents had visited regularly for years, bringing him newspapers and letting him use their cellphones. Some had known Willis since before he landed on the sidewalk.

In the 1990s, he owned two trucks, ran a moving company and lived in a comfortable Slauson Avenue apartment. His teenage daughters used to visit from Mississippi during the summers.

His life began to unravel when he fell behind in paying child support and lost his apartment. Then both of his parents and a sister died in 1998, "and he just fell off the map," said his daughter, Shannon Royal.

"We didn't hear from him for 3 or 4 years," she said. "The phone number was disconnected, the letters came back. Then somebody called and said they'd found my dad, and he was homeless."

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Her father may not have had a home in Los Angeles, but he had a family.

Sgt. Baumann made regular trips to the 99 Cents Only store to get the specific brand of oatmeal cookies Willis craved. "Because," she said, "if that was my family member, I'd want somebody to get them whatever stupid cookies they liked."

Lori Weise drove from Altadena to South L.A. one Christmas Eve to make sure that Willis wasn't alone. "I can't tell you how many people came by with gifts and food," she recalled. "I said 'Wow, this man is loved.' "

Willis will be buried on Saturday in his Mississippi hometown. His daughter had been trying for several years to persuade him to return home or move in with her in Atlanta. But he always refused, obsessed with the idea that people were looking for him.

Royal surprised her father with a visit five years ago, bringing her husband and three children. He was embarrassed by his circumstances, but happy in their company. He took the family along on a recycling expedition and gave his grandchildren the $130 that he earned. His daughter bought him a cellphone and took him shopping at the Crenshaw mall.

It's been painful for Royal to think of her father living on the street, she said. Some family members are ashamed; they don't like the picture on her Facebook page of him surrounded by pigeons.

But she takes comfort in the thought that so many strangers took her father into their hearts.

"It's an honor that somebody would take interest in him. He was homeless, you know. But they knew what kind of person he was," she said.

"He didn't hurt anybody. He kept the street clean. He's a good man. There was a lot of people who loved him."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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