By Erick Johnson
Gary’s 14-year-old Ben Watkins, who survived tragedy and won fame and millions of fans on Fox’s “MasterChef Junior,” died Monday, November 16 after a long battle with cancer.
Watkins lost both parents in a murder-suicide in 2017.
He was diagnosed with a rare illness, angiomatoid fibrous histiocytoma, a soft tissue tumor of the upper extremities in adolescents and young adults, shortly after his thirteenth birthday. Watkins was reportedly undergoing chemotherapy treatment at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
The cancer reportedly caused aggressive tumors that affected his spine, shoulder, and lung. The teenager struggled to recover after his second round of chemotherapy and had been on a ventilator, according to Watkins’ uncle and legal guardian, Anthony Edwards.
“Our Ben went home to be with his mother Monday afternoon,” a statement from his grandmother Donna Edwards, and uncle Anthony Edwards, posted on the #Love4Ben GoFundMe fundraising page, stated. “We have marveled at Ben’s strength, courage and love for life. He never ever complained. Ben was and always will be the strongest person we know.”
Donations are pouring in for the beloved teen. As of Wednesday, $198,281 had been raised on his GoFundMe fundraising page that includes a goal of $300,000.
Trent McCain, the family’s attorney, organized the GoFundMe campaign. In a statement, McCain said that Ben was an inspiration. “I have seen humanity and kindness up close with the outpouring of love and support Ben has received over the past three years.”
The family expressed thanks for the “outpouring of love from every corner of the globe” for Watkins that followed the announcement of his cancer diagnosis, especially in his hometown of Gary, Indiana.
“Ben suffered more than his share in his 14 years on earth,” the statement said. “But we take solace in knowing that his suffering is finally over and that, in the end, Ben knew he was loved by so many.”
“MasterChef Junior” host Gordon Ramsay and other contestants posted an inspirational video for Watkins while he was undergoing treatment in August.
Ramsay posted an Instagram tribute Tuesday saying he was “heartbroken” over “this terrible loss.”
“We lost a Master of the @masterchefjunior kitchen today. Ben you were an incredibly talented home cook and even stronger young man. Your young life had so many tough turns but you always persevered,” Ramsay wrote. “I adored our time cooking and laughing together on set.”
“We mourn the passing of Ben Watkins, a beloved member of the ‘MasterChef Junior’ family,” a statement from show creator Endemol Shine North America said. “Ben overcame so much in his life with a remarkably positive attitude. He was a tremendous role model for chefs of all ages and will be dearly missed.”
Ben was born in Chicago but raised in Gary. A year after he was born his parents Michael and Leila Edwards moved from Chicago in 2001 to escape the crime and gun violence in the city.
According to McCain, the family’s attorney, Ben attended Discovery Charter School in Porter, Indiana from kindergarten to 8th grade. He helped in his family’s restaurant that had been named after him — Big Ben’s Bodacious Barbecue, Bakery & Deli in the Miller Beach neighborhood. He ran the cash register there and sold his own homemade cookies, brownies, cinnamon rolls, and banana bread. He attributed his baking skills to his mother.
Watkins was 11 when he made his debut on the sixth season of the hit culinary competition. The show had 40 contestants between the ages of 8 and 13. In that episode, Ben made peach cobbler with whipped cream and caramel sauce, but his signature dish was fried chicken with mashed potatoes. The 40 contestants competed for 24 slots and a chance to win $100,000 in the finale. Ben placed in the top 18 in the show.
According to the New York Times, not long after his thirteenth birthday, doctors diagnosed Ben with angiomatoid fibrous histiocytoma. The rare disease includes a soft tissue that usually affects children and young adults.
The diagnosis came two years after Ben’s parents died in a murder suicide. In their Miller home, Michael Watkins, 46, shot and killed Leila Edwards before taking his own life. The murders stunned relatives, who said they did not see any warning signs of problems before the shootings, but there was reportedly talk of the couple getting a divorce.
After that tragedy in 2017, Miller residents and Ben’s school created an educational fund for his future.