James Best, pioneer in Lexington fire department, dies at age 68

jkegley@herald-leader.comFebruary 6, 2013 

A former well-known personality in the Lexington fire department and the department's first black firefighter to be promoted to the rank of captain died early Wednesday.

James Best, 68, died at his home in Lexington, said his wife, Karen Best. Mr. Best, who was retired, had struggled with colon cancer after being diagnosed several months ago.

Mr. Best was a lifelong member of Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church, Pastor Thomas H. Peoples said. Through the church, Peoples said, Mr. Best inspired others to join the ranks of Lexington's firefighters, including Fire Chief Keith Jackson, the city's first black fire chief.

"When I came on to the fire department, he was a mentor to me," Jackson said Wednesday. "He was a dedicated member of the Lexington fire department, and I'm proud to have known him as a man and as a firefighter."

Mr. Best was perhaps best known as the host of an educational show that aired on government television in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The show gave viewers an inside look at the department and taught fire safety tips and first aid.

He was among the second class of black fire recruits hired in the early 1970s. He retired several years ago after serving nearly 40 years, his wife said. After retiring, Mr. Best volunteered as a board member of the Dunbar Community Center and served as a mentor. Historic Pleasant Green elected Mr. Best to its Hall of Fame because of his public service and advocacy for youths.

"He had a professional way of going about things. He was a pioneer," Peoples said. "He was someone that young people could look up to."

At the end of his life, Mr. Best was a staunch advocate for regular cancer screenings, his wife said. His cancer was diagnosed too late to be treated effectively.

Karen Best said her husband visited Tuesday with many family members, including his mother, Lottie Mae Best Riley, 92. He died about 4 a.m. Wednesday.

In addition to Mr. Best's wife and mother, survivors include three children, Stephanie Best, DeNeia Thomas and Brandon Best; three brothers; and three sisters.

Visitation will be from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Historic Pleasant Green, 540 West Maxwell Street. Services will be from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the church, followed by burial at Lexington Cemetery. Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Main Street is handling arrangements.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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