James "Jimmy" Bryant Credit: Courtesy of Beth and Tom Benner

One of the best-known people in Belfast wasn’t rich or high-powered or internationally famous.

But he had a smile that seemed to shine out on all of Waldo County and a vigorous handshake for a friend. That handshake got a lot of use because James “Jimmy” Bryant, 53, who died of a heart attack last week, had an awful lot of friends.

“I’m really going to miss his smile and his laugh,” said Neal Parent, a photographer and downtown merchant who played music in the Leaky Boot Jug Band with Bryant. “He was definitely local color. Everybody knew him.”

That’s for sure. For many decades, Bryant was a fixture of the city and even carried the nickname of the “unofficial mayor of Belfast.” Wearing a brightly colored safety vest, he could be seen picking up bottles and cans from the side of the road or joking with just about everybody whose path he crossed, helping them however he could. And even though Bryant had intellectual disabilities that left him at the developmental age of about 10 years old, according to his foster family, his help — and his cheerful personality — was appreciated.

Mike C. Urchin, who works at the Belfast Co-op, said that for several years Bryant would come into the Co-op’s cafe during his shifts. He would help with the trash or point out when the bucket of dirty dishes needed to be emptied.

“He almost thought he was my boss,” Urchin said. “He’d basically kick it with me for the duration of my shift. He was always looking to be as helpful as he possibly could, and he was always offering a hand. He was always good for a laugh, a really funny guy. Always telling jokes and trying to make people smile. He was a positive influence, and he definitely shed a lot of light on a lot of people.”

For many years, Bryant lived in a group home in downtown Belfast, but when that facility closed in 2016, he moved to Tom and Beth Benner’s house in Swanville. He fit perfectly into their family, the Benners said.

“You’ve never met somebody like James Bryant,” Beth Benner said. “He had a heart the size of the universe. He hated to see anybody sad … he taught us to learn to love everybody.”

Bryant called the Benners “Mom” and “Dad,” even though he was close to their age, she said, and he was an enthusiastic participant in their lives. This winter, they traveled to Florida in a camper, and Bryant enjoyed visiting Mile Marker 0 in Key West and going on the rides at Walt Disney World, even though he was initially scared to try them.

His favorite? “It’s a Small World,” the Benners said. It seemed like a fitting choice.

“James always described everybody as his friend. He couldn’t remember their name, but they meant the world to him. Everybody was his friend,” Beth Benner said. “He could go up to anybody with a dump truck, an 18-wheeler or a motorcycle, and if they talked to him for a minute, oh my God, you might as well have given him the world. People don’t realize that if you just take a second and talk to somebody, it can mean so much.”

Bryant loved trucks, motorcycles, joking with friends and watching “Wheel of Fortune” with the Benners. He also relished playing — or at least holding — the jug in the Leaky Boot Jug Band, a group that is a local favorite.

“He was a wonderful addition to the band,” said Parent, who plays harmonica. “People in town loved seeing him on stage.”

Bryant loved being there and will be buried Wednesday with the jug he played. Band members will serve as his pallbearers, according to Beth Benner. There will be a celebration of his life at 3 p.m. Monday, May 20, at the Belfast United Methodist Church on Mill Lane, and the Benners are hoping to see a lot of Bryant’s friends there. It’s not going to be a fancy or formal event, they said, but it will be heartfelt.

“James was a blue jeans and a T-shirt kind of guy, so we want everybody to dress like that. And then we’re going to sing a Christmas song for James,” Beth Benner said.

Chances are pretty good it will be “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” his favorite.

“That’s just who James was,” she said. “He was just a once-in-a-lifetime person.”