Chester rallies around its 'family'

A fire destroyed the Chester home of Eugene and Felicia McCaskill, pictured above at a relative's home. The McCaskills took in several Chester children,regardless of relation, including several star football players.
A fire destroyed the Chester home of Eugene and Felicia McCaskill, pictured above at a relative's home. The McCaskills took in several Chester children,regardless of relation, including several star football players.

CHESTER -- The black mailbox in front of the burned house on Carolina Drive says "McCaskill," but the people who lived there don't use last names.

The owners, Eugene and Felicia McCaskill, are known as "Big Gene" and "Mom" to dozens of Chester kids. They have at least five children -- "at least" because many more treat them like parents -- with various last names, but one home.

"Just the last names are different," Mom said. "We're all one family."

That family lost its home Oct. 17, when an electrical shortage in an adjacent greenhouse caused the afternoon fire that gutted the place. Their 21-year-old son, Anthony White, smelled smoke as he was getting ready to take a shower. He saw the flames and called 911.

Mom was leaving work and Big Gene was at a parts store on his day off. They arrived within minutes of each other.

Outside, they stared at the flames shooting through the house they'd lived in for eight years. No one was hurt, but the roof was destroyed. So were most of the numerous trophies and plaques that filled the den, signs of the family's success.

This was the home of Chris White, the Chester football standout who went on to play at the University of South Carolina and even joined the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles for a short time.

Marquis Coleman, another Chester football star now at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, also lived here. So did Chester High senior and football player Gene "Little Gene" McCaskill, who has committed to the University of Kentucky as a receiver.

Other kids, those who played football and those who didn't, spent hours at the house, sometimes crashing there for the night or just grabbing a meal.

"They've just opened their doors for a lot of the kids in the community," Chester High football coach Victor Floyd said. "They've taken in kids that were in rough family situations or just needed help, needed somewhere to stay. ... People just don't do that now."

The Chester High football team arrived before the firefighters left.

"Mrs. McCaskill, you know a lot of people just lost a home," one of the players told Mom.

The family saved a few wet pictures, some plaques and a football with smeared signatures.

But support poured in from people offering food, clothing and money. Big Gene and Mom never asked for anything; they didn't have to.

People know Big Gene, who works for a polymer manufacturing company in Charlotte. They know Mom, who manages a Chester apartment complex. The couple met some 20 years ago when he trained her for a job at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Winnsboro.

People know their children are linked by blood, friendship and need.

Some are from previous relationships. Others came from bad situations, like Marquis, whose father murdered his mother. He was raised by his grandmother until she grew too sick to care for him. He lived with Big Gene and Mom for three years.

The children's stories are as different as the last names, but no child is more important than another. Everyone gets the same love.

"We don't use 'step-' in our family," Mom said.

The couple is staying with Mom's mother, maybe a mile from their burned home. Mom said the impact of losing her home still hasn't sunk in. Big Gene said he still drives toward the old house sometimes before realizing he can't stay there.

But the family is not despondent, showing an unrelenting optimism.

"It's the fact we know everything's going to be OK," Big Gene said. "Everything gets better every day. ... We can make new memories."

Some of those memories came Oct. 19. Two days after the fire, "Little Gene" McCaskill lit up Dreher High School's football team. Alternating positions, he was 5-for-5 passing for 72 yards and a touchdown, had four catches for 73 yards and two TDs, had six carries for 62 yards and scored a pair of 2-point conversions.

His efforts earned him a "player of the game" honor that came with a plaque -- one to begin a new collection.

"That's a nice start," Mom said.

Another reason for the couple's upbeat attitude comes from the community support. Many people have responded to the needs of the people who spent so many years helping the needy.

"It just overwhelms us," Mom said. "We've always been on the giving end."

Players gradually have started coming to the home where the couple is staying -- on Hope Street, no less.

Still, the boys miss the brick house with the red shutters where last names don't matter and a small sign hangs above a flower pot in the front yard.

"Welcome," it says.

People who would like to help Eugene and Felicia McCaskill can call the Chester High School athletic department at (803) 377-7229.