Actor Sherman Hemsley laid to rest at Fort Bliss National Cemetery
Actor buried after end of four-month legal battle over his will and estate
Under a cloudy, gloomy sky, actor Sherman Hemsley was buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery Wednesday afternoon.
Doves were released and military personnel played "Taps" in honor of Hemsley, who served in the Air Force for four years.
"Emptiness. I feel very empty," said Flora Enchinton-Bernal, Hemsley's best friend, manager and partner. "Sad but happy at the same time that he's at peace where he should be resting. He found peace here so he's gonna be at peace, definitely. Not just in El Paso but the whole world, he loved the whole world and the world loved him back."
Hemsley died July 24 from complications due to lung cancer but a four-month legal battle over his will and estate kept him from being buried until Wednesday.
A white hearse carrying Hemsley's body arrived at Cielo Vista Church shortly after noon. Several pallbearers, including El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen, then carried the flag-draped coffin into the church for the funeral service that included video of some of Hemsley's classic TV moments.
"I didn't know him at all," Allen said. "He was a supporter of law enforcement. The flag on that coffin is the other reason I'm here. He dedicated some of his life to service of this country and I think that deserves recognition."
About 150 people attended the church service. The chaplain presiding over the service said "death is not the end. Sherman is 'movin' on up,'" a pun on the lyric from the theme song to "The Jeffersons."
Hemsley's burial and memorial services had been put on hold while a man, Richard Thornton, claiming to be Hemsley's half-brother, contested a will written by Hemsley one month before he died.
DNA tests did show Thornton is Hemsley's half-brother but the results were not allowed in court because the deadline to turn them in was missed by a week. The presiding judge also said the results were not relevant to the disposition of the body.
In the will, Hemsley left everything he owned to Enchinton-Bernal, whom he referred to in his will as his "beloved partner."
An El Paso judge ruled Hemsley's will was valid in November, therefore the disposition of his body and his estate reside with Enchinton-Bernal.
Thornton did not attend any of the services for Hemsley.
"I not only invited him at the court house when we had that. We invited everyone. That's the reason why we made it public," Enchinton-Bernal said.
David Carrillo, a Vietnam veteran, attended the funeral service at the church.
"I'm here because he's a veteran and I'm a very big fan of his and I've always been a big fan," Carrillo said.
Dr. Robert Hemphill saw Hemsley in a store the week before he died but didn't bother him because Hemsley is a private person.
“I've always wanted to ask him to come to my church to sing because I'm a musician at my church. I just never had that opportunity to do so but he was one of my favorite actors,” Hemphill said.
Hemphill called the character, George Jefferson and the show “The Jeffersons” groundbreaking.
“It was the first time I remember a black person wealthy and owned a business, the cleaners,” Hemphill said. “But he was a down to earth person. He did not seem like a big Hollywood type but a person that was approachable.”
Rashad Poitier also stopped by the funeral home to pay his respects.
“I didn't know him personally but I enjoyed his television show, enjoyed reading about him,” Poitier said. “He reminded me of my father, growing up watching the show and everything. It was good entertainment with lessons learned.”
Poitier said a person learned how to act as a person and how to conduct yourself from the characters on “The Jeffersons.”
About Hemsley finally being laid to rest, Almonte, a U.S. Marshal, said "it feels so good... I'm so happy for her, for his spirit, his friends and family that they finally have closure today. After four months of the unknown his wishes were fulfilled finally being able to rest in peace here in El Paso, the city he loved so much with the people he loved so much."
"It was important for us, as Mr. (Robert) Almonte can tell you, to say 'enough already. Let's put him to rest,'" Enchinton-Bernal said. "This went on for four months already so Robert Almonte told me the most beautiful thing. He says 'you know Flora, Wednesday would be a beautiful time to put him to rest. It's the day before Thanksgiving, so come Thanksgiving we have a reason to be thankful' and he was absolutely right."
Enchinton-Bernal said Hemsley will be missed at the Thanksgiving table.
"We always had Thanksgivings together but it's okay. His table setting is going to be there and I know that spiritually he's going to be there."
Remembering Mr. Sherman
To most of America and much of the world, he was Mr. Jefferson.
Around Hemsley's East El Paso neighborhood, he was known simply as "Mr. Sherman."
It was difficult for his neighbors not to say his name without smiling.
"He was like one of the family," one neighbor told ABC-7 in July.
Neighbors said they remember the famous actor strolling the sidewalks on his way to buy groceries or get a quick bite to eat.
"They really adored seeing him and they used to eat with him at Primo's," another neighbor said. Primo's is now called Rick's after a change in ownership.
"He was always like 'hey Rick, how ya doin' Rick?" owner Ricardo Maese said. "My first reaction was (that) I know him from 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air,' because that's what I grew up with back when i was a little kid."
Hemsley was often spotted either walking to or from Rick's restaurant.
"He would buy a chocolate cake, a bacon cheeseburger, and french fries," Maese said.
And while Maese had Hemsley's order down-pat, it wasn't as easy for the TV star to transition to Primo's new name when he left behind a handwritten message.
"When I got it, he decided to sign the wall, but he put it under Primo's," Maese said, recalling that he told Hemsley it was going to be called Rick's. "He said he was sorry and asked if he should change it, and I said no, keep it how it is."
Maese said he's happy to have Hemsley's name stick on the wall, even if the establishment it's addressed to doesn't exist anymore.
Almonte first met Hemsley in 2000 when he was with the Texas Narcotic Association and he heard Hemsley was living in El Paso.
Hemsley dropped by the conference and they became friends.
“He was a really nice guy,” Almonte said. “A lot of people thought he’d be like the character (George Jefferson), but it was a character. He was really nice and quiet. He was a little guy with a huge heart.”
A Love For Music
While he gained fame and acclaim as an actor, Hemsley also had a heart for music.
And not just for the gospel music he sang in church as a child or big band music he sang in recent years.
Hemsley began making funky, electronic, loops-based music over the past decade. Advances in music programs and software allowed him to create the soundscapes in his own home.
He found a kindred spirit in El Paso musician Billy Townes when the two met in the late ‘90s in Los Angeles during a National Association of Musician Merchants conference where Townes was demonstrating a program.
Hemsley asked Townes about making loops with the program and their friendship took off from there.
Once back in El Paso, the two kept in touch and over the years they would sometimes hang out and even watch Dallas Cowboys football games together.
They also would discuss and play music here and there.
Hemsley sent Townes a CD of instrumental music and had plans to record vocals over it with Townes as the producer.
“We just never got that far,” Townes said in July.
Dennis Woo, operations director at KTEP, said Hemsley would call the El Paso radio station every so often and share stories off air with Woo.
"He would say 'God, I haven't heard that song in a long, long time,'" Woo told ABC-7 in July. "After he called a few times, I finally asked him what his first name was and he said 'You know me as Mr. Jefferson.'"
Woo said Hemsley, a fan of jazz music, would usually call the station after he heard an NPR story he was particularly interested in or around certain jazz festival times.
"There was one time he shared a story that he and Bill Cosby used to hang out at the Playboy Jazz Festival with all the luminaries. He would say that here's a guy that used to be a postman and here he is hanging out with all the greats and getting to meet Dizzy Gillespie, among others," Woo said.
ABC-7 reporter Angela Kocherga contributed to this report
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