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Emerson Stamps, 93, D-Day veteran and barbecue master

Emerson Stamps
Emerson Stamps, 93, D-Day veteran and barbecue master. Photo credit: The Boston Globe

When Emerson Stamps was in the Army, stationed in England during the lead-up to the D-Day invasion, mail kept arriving from his mother in Kansas. Even at that distance he felt protected by her thoughts.

“I was never afraid that I was going to get killed or going to get hurt or anything,” he said in a June 26, 2015, interview for the Natick Veterans Oral History Project. “My mother sent me letters every week saying she was praying for me. She was very spiritual and religious and I believed her. I didn’t think anything would happen. And it didn’t.”

There were close calls, however, including on June 6, 1944, when the invasion began and he was operating a winch on a boat bringing soldiers and supplies into battle.

“I was sitting on the deck running the winch and the Germans were flying over and strafing the ship,” he said in the interview at the Museum of World War II-Boston, which is located in Natick. “And the bullets were hitting the steel ship — it sounds just like popcorn popping. And I never received any injuries.”

Mr. Stamps, who formerly was a psychiatric aide in Boston and who was known for the extensive barbecuing he did for church fund-raisers, died of cancer Aug. 7. He was 93 and lived in NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, after many years in West Roxbury.

While working with troubled adolescents and families, and during his retirement years, Mr. Stamps cooked about 200 pounds of ribs and 200 pieces of chicken annually for church events. “As he said, ‘When I’m doing barbecuing, it’s a spiritual experience,’ and indeed it was,” Judith Garfunkel, his companion and life partner for 42 years, said of his smoky, fall-off-the-bone creations.

Mr. Stamps “actually ordered a smoker from Minnesota and had it shipped,” she said. “It was an enormous thing with a big chimney on it.”

Barbecuing, he told the Globe in 1997, brought him back to his childhood on a farm in Arkansas. His mother fixed expansive meals for her large family and the farmworkers, and was known as such a good cook that she “could make pig’s skin and jowls taste good,” he said in the Globe interview. “No one could beat her peach cobbler, gumbo, black-eyed peas, or pork chops.”

Mr. Stamps was 7 when he began cooking. He recalled sitting atop a tall chair next to the stove so he could see into the simmering pot. “Mama told me to make sure that there was always enough water covering the beans and to give them a stir with a wooden spoon every now and again,” he said.

Decades later, he prepared his church barbecues well in advance. He marinated pork ribs in a dry rub for two days before cooking them for hours while applying a basting sauce.

“He loved it, and it was hard work — heavy, heavy work — but it made for a lot of fun, too, and a lot of new friends,” Garfunkel said.

The youngest of eight, Mr. Stamps grew up in tiny Tamo, Ark., east of Pine Bluff. His parents, Israel Stamps and the former Estella Jones, were sharecroppers, and his father also was a “hellfire and brimstone preacher,” Garfunkel said.

In the oral history, Mr. Stamps said his father was a son of slaves who “would rule the home by bullying everybody.”

“In Arkansas growing up, I guess the one word that describes it best is fear,” Mr. Stamps added.

As an African-American, he also learned to defer to everyone who was white. “It was beyond segregation,” he recalled. “You didn’t even speak to them unless they spoke to you first. If you were walking down the sidewalk, and there’s white people coming towards you, you were to get off the sidewalk and walk in the street.”

He was barely a teenager when his father died. Afterward, Mr. Stamps moved with his mother to stay with one of his older sisters in Topeka, Kan., where he cut and sold kindling to earn 15 cents a week — enough for a Saturday movie and popcorn.

He joined the Army during World War II and served in England, France, and Germany as a technician fourth grade in a cargo unit. Discharged in 1946, he worked in a Detroit auto plant until he lost his job during a strike. Auto mechanics “didn’t work for me,” he said in the oral history. “I was a people person and didn’t realize it until later.”

Boarding a train with one of his brothers to go back to Topeka, Mr. Stamps came down with appendicitis on the way. While being treated at a hospital in Topeka, he ran into former soldiers with whom he had served. They had become psychiatric aides, and he liked the sound of the work. “I signed up before I was able to get out of the hospital to work there,” he said in the oral history, and he went to work for Karl Menninger, the psychiatrist whose family founded the Menninger Clinic in Topeka.

After working in Topeka hospitals for years, Mr. Stamps lost his job while trying to organize a union. In the oral history, he said friends helped him find work in Boston in 1968. He worked for Boston State Hospital, the Harvard Street Naval Health Center, and the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center, and went to Cambridge College after turning 50 for a master’s degree.

Garfunkel and Mr. Stamps, whose previous marriage ended in divorce, became a couple in 1974.

“I remember going to a conference and hearing him ask a question,” she said. “When I heard his voice, I thought he was someone I wanted to meet, and that he was somebody special. It turned out he was someone special.”

A service has been held for Mr. Stamps, who in addition to Garfunkel leaves five daughters, Aarey Jean Woods and Anita, both of Topeka, Estella Owens and Stephanie Hudspeth, both of Oklahoma City, and Toni of Phoenix; a son, Emerson Jr. of Topeka; 11 grandchildren; 16 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.

Last year, Mr. Stamps and Garfunkel visited Normandy, France, and Omaha Beach. As they were leaving, a bus of schoolchildren pulled up, and he stayed to tell them about his service on D-Day. “The teacher talked to the children and said, ‘You’re seeing history,’ ” Garfunkel said.

In the oral history interview, Mr. Stamps said serving in Europe changed his view of everything, including race relations.

“When I was raised in Arkansas, you know, you were taught that the white people were better and you stay in your place,” he said. That wasn’t the case during his wartime service, he added, “and when I came back, I didn’t respect that rule any more. I could be anybody I want to be. I could be my own person.”

View story in The Boston Globe