URBANA — Friends and family say Terry Masar gave them encouragement, helped build the jazz music scene in Champaign-Urbana, and made people laugh.
Urbana police are investigating the death of Mr. Masar, 61, of Urbana, whose body was found Sunday evening at the Super 8 Motel in Urbana.
Mr. Masar was a former University of Illinois football player who had operated several restaurants in Champaign-Urbana. He had been a co-owner of Nature's Table and had once operated Sweet Betsy's in Urbana.
Champaign County Coroner Duane E. Northrup said Mr. Masar's death was being investigated as an unexpected death.
Northrup said a cause of death is pending, because toxicology results are not in yet from an autopsy performed on Monday in Bloomington.
Urbana police Lt. Bryant Seraphin said Mr. Masar was reported missing as of 8 a.m. Saturday.
According to a police report, family members had not heard from Mr. Masar for two days before that and thought the disappearance was out of character for him.
He was pronounced dead at 6:32 p.m. Sunday at the motel, 612 W. Killarney St., U.
Mr. Masar was a punter for the UI football team from 1969 to 1971 and was the team's most valuable player in 1971. He had the sixth most career punts at the UI and held the school record for most punts — 85 — in a season.
Jeff Machota of Urbana worked with Mr. Masar at Nature's Table and later assisted him in organizing Nature's Table reunions.
Machota said he will remember Mr. Masar has a hard worker who had a great sense of humor.
"Terry always made everybody laugh," Machota said. "One of the great things about Terry is that, as a boss he could do everything necessary to make the business run. He did everything from washing the dishes to booking the bands and pouring the beer, and he had a great time doing it."
Machota described his friend as "a huge supporter of jazz."
"Under Terry's leadership, Nature's Table produced lots of great musicians and great music," Machota said. "Terry's love of music was known throughout Illinois and throughout the country. Nature's Table always had a special place in people's hearts, and, as far as I'm concerned, Terry was Nature's Table."
Skully Andrews of Urbana credited Mr. Masar for helping him to start his own business, Skully's Chicken and Fish, on Philo Road in Urbana about nine years ago.
"I was from the south side of Chicago and didn't know very many people," Andrews said. "Let me tell you what a great landlord Terry was. He made available to me whatever I needed to get my business started.
"Terry had $15,000 of restaurant equipment left over from Nature's Table, and he leased it to me for $10 a month. And if I was $200 short on rent one month, he didn't worry about it. He knew I'd make the payment the next month."
Andrews said he sold the business three years ago, but he remained friends with Mr. Masar.
"We would tailgate at the football games together, and Terry would come to my house to watch Bears games with me," Andrew said.
Andrews said he will never forget Mr. Masar's devotion to his children.
"He was always involved with his kids in sports," Andrews said. "His children were very important to him, and that was all he talked about."
Mr. Masar's ex-wife, Shelley Washburne Masar, said she met her future husband as a customer at Nature's Table.
"I was a dance student, and I often went to Nature's Table to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine," she said. "Terry was one of the owners working there. He was very funny, and he could make people laugh."
She said she often is reminded of a line from "Home on the Range" when she thinks of Mr. Masar.
"'Seldom is heard a discouraging word' — that was Terry," she said. "He had a way of lighting up people's lives, especially his children's lives."
She described Mr. Masar as "a magnificent athlete who was able to teach his children how to play sports without being a drill sergeant."
"He taught our children to play sports for the joy of it," she said.
She said Mr. Masar was extremely proud of Nature's Table and its legacy.
"Nature's Table was a special place where everyone enjoyed jazz and enjoyed each other's minds," she said.
She said she remained close to Mr. Masar after their marriage ended.
"Terry and I continued to get together every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every birthday," she said. "We stayed friends, and I'm glad about it. He was a very loving guy."
Paul Wirth, owner of The Iron Post, credited Mr. Masar's operation of Nature's Table for increasing the popularity of the blues and jazz in central Illinois.
"I appreciated the club. It was a great place to hear the blues and jazz," Wirth said. "I even remember Alison Krauss playing there when she was young."
Wirth said Mr. Masar continued to support jazz long after Nature's Table closed and often attended shows at The Iron Post.
"One night, as he was walking out, Terry turned to me and said, 'Thanks, Paul. Great music.' I'll never forget that," he said.
An informal gathering in honor of Mr. Masar, featuring the music of the Erik Lund Quintet, is planned from 8 to 10 p.m. Wednesday at The Iron Post, 120 South Race St., U.
Family and friends will celebrate Mr. Masar's life from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Buvons Wine Bar, 203 N. Vine St., U, with jazz provided by Jeff Helgesen & Friends.