It was just a few weeks ago that Jason Cuffee told his dad:
“This is the best summer of my life.”
The 27-year-old Charleston, West Virginia firefighter and medic had had some other good summers:
---There was the one 10 years ago, before his senior year at Poca High School when he’d win All State honors as a football and basketball player.
---There was the following summer, as he prepared to head to Wright State on a basketball scholarship.
---And there was that summer in 2015, when he’d finished a stellar three-year basketball career at Cedarville University and just joined the fire department.
But everything in his life seemed to be coming together this summer.
“We all went on vacation to Destin, Florida at a time when we thought COVID was gonna be over,” said Linwood Cuffee, Jason’s dad. “Our whole family was there -- Jason and his fiancé and his two kids, our other son Elijah and his friend, our daughter Myra and her friend, me, my wife, my wife’s mom and sister – and we had a great time together.
“Then we came back and Jason’s grandmother and grandfather – they helped raise him when he was younger – had their 60th wedding anniversary and we have a video that shows Jason crying at the end and thanking them for all they have done for him. It was beautiful.”
Jason had two loveable sons, 4-year-old Zeke and 1-year-old Theo.
On Aug. 15 he was planning to propose to his girlfriend, Hannah Reifsteck, an ER nurse. And in November the couple was expecting their second child, a daughter they planned to name Delilah.
And Jason was well-liked in his firehouse – Oakwood Road Station 3 – and had found his calling as a medic.
“He had a servant’s heart so that’s why being a fireman was so fitting,” said Cedarville basketball coach Pat Estepp. “Jason loved people.”
Lt. David Hodges of the Charleston fire department echoed those thoughts to MetroNews radio in Charleston last week: “Jason rode 24-hour shifts on the ambulance, so he was there in the streets and he was passionate about his job. He was one, I like to say, who would take a knee and hear a patient out in their time of need.”
And during this coronavirus pandemic, Linwood said Jason had come to the aid of several COVID-19 patients and transported then to the hospital.
“He was just a very compassionate person,” Hodges said. “Cuffee didn’t know any strangers. He never left a bad impression with anyone.”
And that’s why everyone from Charleston and Poca to Cedarville and Wright State is in such shock now.
On Sunday evening, July 19, Cuffee transported a COVID patient to the hospital, then returned to the station and wiped the ambulance down with strong disinfectants, his dad said.
He then went upstairs to sleep, but when a call came in later, he didn’t report. Fellow firefighters went up and found him unresponsive. He was rushed to the Charleston Area Medical Center Memorial Hospital , where he was pronounced dead just before 2 am on Monday, July 20.
Officials have attributed his death to an undisclosed medical ailment. Linwood said a toxicology report showed no drugs or alcohol in his system. He said autopsy results might take 30 days.
He said his son had allergies and breathing problems. He used an inhaler and wondered if “the chemicals he used” to wipe down the ambulance played a factor. He also said his son was taking Benadryl for his allergies.
“There are just so many things, you don’t know what all led to it.” One thing everyone does know is that Charleston lost a beloved first responder, just as Cedarville lost an embraced basketball alum. And a family – including two little boys – lost its shining light.
“When we went to the funeral home, we were planning on doing just a 30-person, immediate family ceremony because of COVID and putting the rest on Facebook,” Linwood said.
“But some of the firefighters came in and said ‘No! He’s a firefighter. He was on duty and we’re a brotherhood. We want to send him off like the hero he was.’”
Cuffee was the first Charleston firefighter in 40 years to die on duty.
Linwood said his wife counted over 500 signatures in the funeral registry. Hundreds of fireman -- many in dress uniforms, almost all in masks – showed up at the “Homegoing” ceremony held at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center.
Local ministers, fire officials and Charleston’s mayor spoke.
So did Jayson Gee, the University of Cincinnati assistant coach, who was a prep standout at Springfield South in the mid-1980s, played at the University of Charleston and since then has had a celebrated 32-year career as a college coach.
He and his family have known the Cuffee family since the mid-1990s and he was Jason’s godfather.
“He was an All-State football player, an All-State basketball player and just an All American kid,” Gee said. “He was a tremendous human being.”
Cuffee’s flag-draped casket was put onto a firetruck and given one final honorary ride around the streets he served before heading to the Tyler Mountain Memorial Gardens.
“The whole city shut down for his funeral,” Linwood said.
As the memorial ride came down Quarrier Street, it passed beneath a large American flag held aloft by the extended ladders of two firetrucks.
A week ago Gee and Philip Berry launched a GoFundMe page to help provide the educational needs for Jason’s two sons and coming daughter. Although he said they’d be eligible for tuition-free scholarships in West Virginia, he said other college costs are not covered and he hoped to collect $10,000 for each child -- $30,000 total.
To help you can donate at: gofundme/for Jason 1039-kids.
Athletics runs through the whole Cuffee family.
Linwood played football at both Virginia Union and Liberty University. Sara was a basketball player for the Poca Dots, as the high school team is nicknamed.
Son Elijah scored 1,306 points at Poca High in three seasons before transferring. At Liberty University, he’s now started 89 of 107 games in his first three seasons.
Daughter Myra has gotten a scholarship to Marshall.
Jason, though, was especially celebrated in high school. He was a 1,515 point scorer in basketball, the fooball quarterback and 4.0 student.
He chose WSU, then coached by Billy Donlon, over the Citadel, Colgate, Columbia and Tennessee Martin, but his first season with the Raiders was hampered by injuries and occasional lapses in intensity.
Estepp saw it sometimes at Cedarville: “He was really talented, but sometimes he was too nice on the court. He could take over a game when he decided to, but he was unselfish to a fault. He always wanted to defer to someone else.”
Even so, Cuffee started 74 of 85 games at Cedarville, scored 753 career points and won All-NCCAA Midwest Region honors.
While at Cedarville he also married a volleyball player and they had Ezekial or Zeke as he’s known. But that marriage ended in divorce.
After his senior year a Cedarville, Jason was guided by the family’s minister to a fire department opening.
“Jason was especially close to his mom – even now he called her every day – and he wanted to follow her path,” Linwood said. “She’s a nurse practitioner and he wanted to help people like she does.”
Everybody has a story of Jason embracing others,
“Every time our team did stuff with little kids, he was the absolute first one out there,” Estepp remembered. “He had a good time with them. You just saw his kindness.”
Linwood remembered a story from Jason’s high school days, but as we spoke he struggled to tell it:
“Although Jason had a scholarship to Wright State, a teacher here gave him a $5,000 scholarship because of the way he was with her students. They were mentally-challenged and he was one of the most popular kids in school and he spent a lot of his time with those kids. He just…just…” And with that, Linwood began to softly weep.
Credit: Scott Huck
Credit: Scott Huck
“The teacher looked at the way he reached out to her kids and loved them,” Linwood said once he’d regained some composure. “He’d hang out with a couple of them every day and tell them how special they were and it was …”
And again his words gave way to tears.
Estepp knew what Linwood was talking about: “Jason was always welcoming, always loving, always selfless. His smile said everything about him. People loved being around him.”
Estepp and seven other former Yellow Jacket assistant coaches, players and a manager went to the funeral.
“He’s the first player I ever coached who’s passed away,” Estepp said. “It was really tough walking up to his casket. I kept it together until I got close, but then it hit me. I handed his mom two of the jerseys he wore for us and she’s going to give them to his little boys.”
Jayson Gee was specially moved when Jason’s parents took their 4-year-old grandson Zeke to the funeral home:
“They allowed him to walk up to the open casket. They felt it was important for him to be exposed and to understand as much as possible.”
When it comes to understanding his dad, little Zeke should remember a few things:
Remember how “the whole city shut down” in his dad’s honor last Friday. And remember the words of the men who knew him best, guys like Jayson Gee and Pat Estepp.
Mostly, he should remember his own father’s words,
Thanks to so many things – especially because of Zeke and Theo and soon-to-be-added Delilah – Jason Cuffee said he was having “the best summer of his life.”
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