LONG BEACH — It was right around Thanksgiving last year, as his friends recall, that Fred McCarty's cough started getting so bad that the fits left him red in the face and gasping violently for air.
McCarty, whose hefty girth, white hair, beard and frequent smile gave him more than a passing resemblance to St. Nick, was homeless and sick. At 49, he had suffered two heart attacks, lost his job as a truck driver, his home, then his two daughters to foster parents, because the only home he could offer them was the back of the family station wagon.
Instead of sliding into despair, McCarty became a quiet but determined spokesman for the homeless, working hard to break stereotypes that define the homeless as shiftless men and women.
He and his wife, Lynette, told their story on Comic Relief, the nationally televised fund-raiser for the homeless that included comedy's best talents. He also spoke to church groups and other organizations interested in the homeless problem.
But as he became a well-known and effective spokesman for the homeless, his health began to fail. What was thought to be a bad smoker's hack turned into pneumonia, and later his symptoms were diagnosed as lung cancer.
Last week, he died after an operation to remove a cancerous tumor from his lung.
Although McCarty did not make it off the streets or buy a new home for his children, as he had hoped, his friends said he accomplished much for the homeless.
"He saw the way homeless are and saw that they were no different from anybody else," said Spike Johnson, one of McCarty's friends at the Christian Outreach Appeal, a downtown mission where McCarty had been working as a security guard. "What Fred was saying is that he was equal. He gave me the chance to show who I really was."
Rodney Cromer, who had been living in the brush near the Los Angeles River until he met McCarty about four months ago, said McCarty was the "papa bear" of the mission.
"He was someone you could sit down and talk to, tell all your problems to," Cromer said. "He would take care of everybody. I got my life together because of Fred."
Others at Christian Outreach Appeal remember McCarty as a quiet man who enjoyed a good joke and a frequent smoke.
The normally easygoing man had a stubborn streak when it came to cutting down on cigarettes, they said, so he continued to smoke until the day he was admitted to the hospital. But what people remember most about McCarty was his generosity.
Sheila Pagnani, the city's homeless services coordinator, said: "Here he was, destitute himself, living in his car, but he always shared what he had with other people. He was an exceptional human being."
The Rev. Gary Erb, the pastor at Christian Outreach Appeal, said McCarty had been homeless for about five years. For most of that time, he and he wife lived out of their station wagon, both working part time, neither making enough to rent an apartment. Their children were living in Victorville with foster parents, and McCarty and his wife spent their time traveling between the cities.
Erb said McCarty came to Christian Outreach Appeal last fall and was working as a volunteer. He and his wife were eventually hired on as staff and allowed to live in the mission's house with about eight others. Erb said McCarty did find a job servicing vending machines, but then his car broke down and McCarty lost the job.
Though McCarty was eligible for disability benefits, Erb said he and his wife did not understand the system, so it wasn't until McCarty came to Christian Outreach Appeal that he filled out proper paper work.
McCarty's friends remember that they rarely saw him depressed or discouraged by the bad turns his life had taken. It was a side of him that he hid, they said.
But when he appeared on Comic Relief, he spoke of the loss of his children and his life as a homeless man.
"The hardest thing, the thing that hurts the most about being homeless is the fear that it is always going to continue that way," he said.
Erb said a special fund has been set up for Lynette McCarty. Christian Outreach Appeal is paying for McCarty's funeral. Donations to Lynette McCarty can be sent to her care of Christian Outreach Appeal.