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Originally published: 2012-07-31 16:28:07
Last modified: 2012-07-31 22:15:58

Funeral honors slain deputy

by Sherrie Norris

On Tuesday afternoon, about 2,500 people attended the funeral service of William R. Mast Jr., a 23-year-old sheriff's deputy whose life came to an abrupt end in the line of duty in the early morning hours of July 26.

"When William answered that call the other morning, he had no idea that it would, indeed, be his last call," said the Rev. Derek Wilson, one of three ministers who participated in the service at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone.

Wilson was joined by the Revs. Bud Russell and Michael Greene, as well as Master Trooper Chris Morgan of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol and Sgt. Andrew Absher, Capt. Kelly Redmon and Sheriff Len D. Hagaman, representing the Watauga County Sheriff's Office. Each paid tribute to a young man they loved and respected.

An estimated 1,000 law enforcement officers from as far as Pennsylvania attended the service — one of the largest, if not the largest, funeral ever conducted by Austin and Barnes Funeral Home, said director Mike Austin.

Austin estimated about the same number of people — "around 2,500" — stood in line for hours Monday night to pay tribute to Mast and to express condolences to his family.

Officials representing various areas of law enforcement included three local judges, a retired FBI agent, a U.S. marshal, a retired Secret Service agent, court administrators, park rangers, sheriffs, state troopers, police and young cadets in training.

Additionally, numerous firefighters and other emergency rescue personnel, including those from Deep Gap who responded to the scene of Mast's fatal shooting, attended.

Many chose to stand in and around the sanctuary or outside the doors for the more than two-hour memorial service, with others finding seating in overflow areas in the church, all of which had been equipped with large video screens.

Mast's body, resting in a coffin draped with an American flag, was carried to the front of the church in a caisson, a horse-drawn military wagon provided by the N.C. Troopers Association and the N.C. Highway Patrol.

The Boone Police Department's honor guard lined the church entrance for Mast and his family. They were followed by several hundred active and retired local law enforcement officers and their spouses, who were given reserved seating in the main sanctuary; other law enforcement personnel were seated in a private room.

The church altar was filled with floral arrangements. One, fashioned into a golden star representing Mast's badge and surrounded by numerous carnations depicting the fellowship he shared with his comrades, stood above the coffin.

Other arrangements, too numerous for the limited space available in the front of the church, were taken to another area and included one from a Myra and Billy McCants.

The card read: "Our son, Deputy James Brent McCants, was murdered, too, at the age of 23, on Sept. 25, 1992, in York, S.C."

Floral tributes included those from the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office, Franklin and Jane Graham and Samaritan's Purse, Boone Kangaroo Express, Watauga County Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Watauga Medical Center's Birthing Center and many others. A card attached to a large vase of red roses read: "From your loving wife and son."

The firstborn child of William and Paige Mast, a son to be named William Hunter Mast, is due to be born on Aug. 23. The couple was anticipating their third wedding anniversary on Aug. 1. Mast would have turned 24 on Aug. 16.

According to Mast's close friend, Master Trooper Chris Morgan, whose first assignment was Watauga County, he had been "blessed" to become close friends with Mast.

Morgan spoke of Mast's love for deer hunting, but more so for that of his wife, Paige, and his unborn son.

"He was as excited as any man I know about becoming a father," Morgan said. "I will have Hunter's lifetime hunting license waiting for him when he gets here."

Morgan said he had provided a character reference for Mast when he first applied for a job at the sheriff's office.

"Sheriff, you made his dreams come true when you gave him the chance to serve his community," Morgan said. "He far exceeded our expectations."

Morgan said he knew that the tragedy had caused many officers to "rethink" what they were doing.

"William would understand if you decided to move on," he said."But that's not what he would want you to do. Like Paige said, William would tell you to suck it up and continue to fight the fight."

Morgan spoke also of the "fire in his eyes," and the excitement Mast expressed over being in law enforcement.

"He loved what he did, and he would want all of us to know here today that we are not only in law enforcement, but law enforcement is in us. He would also want us to know that every officer is a hero to somebody and we can't give up," Morgan said.

Hagaman, like his fellow speakers, was overcome with emotion as he spoke.

"This is difficult. We are hurting, and our hearts are broken. Others in law enforcement are hurting with us, too," he said and displayed a folder of messages from agencies in Washington, New Jersey, South Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma and several other states, expressing their condolences.

Hagaman's tribute was centered on "words" " and many, he said, that are often spoken during tragedy to describe hurt, doubt, anger, comfort and inspiration. He cited "love" as the greatest of all and challenged the gathered mourners to "never lose sight of that word."

"We are able to love," he said, "because God first loved us."

Hagaman said that Mast had two loves " Paige and Hunter were one; his chosen career was the other.

"That was his calling, indeed," he said. "Our job to serve and protect, just by nature, has its consequences. We must purposefully place ourselves in harm's way to do our job with no hesitation and no reservation to step into danger."

Hagaman spoke of the honor it was to have Mast in his department.

"William will be protecting the heavenly grounds in preparation of our arrival," he said. "We will be greeted by a badge of gold with the number 123 on it, worn by a wonderful husband and father who will extend his right hand to us and hear God say, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.'"

Redmon said, "I didn't want to do this but was given good advice just to tell the truth. The truth is that I'm sad, and I'm angry, and I can't understand why this happened. We will never know, and that's OK. I loved William Mast, and a lot of others did, too."

Redmon shared how Mast spent time at the sheriff's office, "with a fire in his eyes," even before he had his basic law enforcement training.

"He wanted to work with us, there was no doubt," Redmon said.

Redmon said that during training, Mast exhibited above-average skills and interest.

"The next morning after graduating from the BLET program, he was in the office with his application in hand," Redmon said. "I was processing his paperwork when something caught my attention " he wasn't 21 yet. But we found a place for him until he was."

Redmon described Mast as "always smiling and happy" and explained that Mast's nickname, "High Speed," was self-explanatory.

"That's just the way he was," he said, and once he set his sights on the SWAT team, "the fire in his eyes was even more intense."

Mast's son has already been given a nickname, according to his comrades.

"I can't wait to meet Hank," Redmon said.

The Rev. Bud Russell, father of Deputy Sheriff Preston Russell, who was Mast's partner and close friend, said, "When a police officer is killed in the line of duty, not only does it affect the community where it happened, but it also affects the county and state. We are all suffering."

Russell said a job in law enforcement was a "ministry," telling the officers in attendance that their work was "God-ordained."

He expressed his appreciation, on behalf of Preston and their family for the outpouring of love and support that they have felt since the fateful incident, in which his son was forced to return fire at his partner's side.

Sgt. Andrew Absher, another close friend and fellow officer, shared with Mast's family how he knew of his friend's deep love for each of them.

"He would want us to smile and celebrate his time on this Earth," he said.

Absher said the two often washed their cars together and prayed together at the county garage and that Mast loved to joke and play tricks on his coworkers.

"He was a comedian, for sure," he said. "He was also a true child of God. I will miss him and the fellowship we enjoyed together."

The Revs. Derek Wilson and Michael Greene shared personal experiences of watching Mast grow up and said that he was a part of their lives, both in and out of the church.

"I have preached 300 funerals or more," Wilson said, "and here I am now, preaching for William, my buddy, my friend."

He knew Mast "since he was a little fellow," he said. "He had attended Bibleway Christian School with my children.

Greene shared various personal stories and read a love letter that Mast had written to his wife before they were married.

Greene proceeded to challenge the congregation to read John 3:16, which he described as "the greatest love letter of all."

He said, "It is appointed to every man a time to do. Everyone needs to be ready, because, (like William) we never know when death will come to us."

Greene said that on July 1, Mast responded to the invitation he gave following his sermon.

"He knelt at the altar and after a while, I went over to him and asked if everything was all right," Greene said. "With tears in his eyes, William looked up at me and said, 'It is now.' He told me that he had made professions of faith before, but that he had never been completely sure of his salvation until then. He said for the first time in his life, he knew that he was saved and that if he died tomorrow, he'd go to Heaven."

Special music was provided during the funeral by the Bibleway Youth Choir and by Doug Hamby.

Mast was buried in the Mast Family Cemetery in Sugar Grove with Masonic and law enforcement honors.

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