Community grieves: ‘Police and firefighters touch our hearts’
By CASEY TONER AND STEVE METSCH firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com November 10, 2012 5:46PM
Firefighters lined Western Avenue for the procession for Chicago Fire Department Capt. Herbert Johnson at St. Rita Cascia Shrine Chapel, 7740 S. Western Ave. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: January 10, 2013 1:46AM
Perhaps nowhere in the world was the tragic death of Chicago fire Capt. Herbie Johnson felt more deeply than in the tight-knit communities of the city’s 19th Ward.
Johnson, 54, died Nov. 2 from injuries he suffered while battling a house fire at 2315 W. 50th Place, becoming the first firefighter to die in the line of duty since 2010.
A longtime resident of the Morgan Park community, Johnson lived among his peers in a region of the city that is home to generations of retired and current firefighters, police officers and other civil servants.
Johnson was considered a community leader and almost immediately after his death, his outsized personality and booming laugh were the talk of local coffee shops, bars and Facebook feeds.
Even if people didn’t know Johnson, they knew plenty of people like him — fierce, purposeful men and women who aren’t afraid to stare down danger or rush into burning buildings.
“There are a hundred Herbie Johnson types in the community who are policemen and firemen,” Ald. Matt O’Shea said. “If you walk down any block, any part of the neighborhood, chances are you can point at a house and say ‘cop, fireman, teacher.’ ”
Tom Ryan, the president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, said about 1,450 of Chicago’s 4,700 firefighters live in the 19th Ward communities of Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood. O’Shea said there are about 1,900 police officers residing in the ward.
“They’re everywhere,” Beverly resident Bill Zawaski said. “You don’t live here if you aren’t a police officer or firefighter or if you’re not related to one.”
Former Ald. Ginger Rugai said the 19th Ward’s reputation as a good place to raise a family may be a reason why firefighters, police officers, teachers and other city workers tend to gravitate there.
It also boasts two of the city’s finest Chicago public schools in Annie Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and a host of popular Catholic elementary and high schools.
“It’s definitely an old-fashioned neighborhood,” Rugai said. “It’s where people know one another, where families grow up, where generations of families live. It’s a place where we celebrate together and where we mourn together.”
And when there’s a death in the family, the 19th Ward family takes it hard, even those who may not personally know the deceased.
“With the firefighters or police officers, there’s an extra special feeling because they’re out there risking their lives for us, protecting us, protecting the entire city,” Rugai said. “It’s hard to explain the feeling, but you get it when someone shows up at your door with food. People look out for each other. They know the names of all the children on their block.”
Billy Guide, who owns Cork & Kerry, a popular watering hole on Western Avenue, has served countless cold beverages to firefighters, police officers and other city workers who call the ward home. His bar memorialized Johnson by draping an American flag over the barstool he used to sit in.
“The fact that they have to live in the city,” Guide said. “That’s where they grow up and that’s where they stay.”
The Rev. Frank Kurucz is pastor of St. Cajetan Catholic Church, where Johnson was an active parishioner.
The passing of a firefighter or a police office who lives in the ward “creates an overwhelming sense of loss,” he said.
“I felt it was like a black cloud hanging over us,” Kurucz said. “It was hard for us to understand. You see these things happen on TV, but when it’s part of your community, it hits us whole.”
As the community grieved for Johnson, it has also started to raise money for his family. Dave Barrett and Frank Slattery came up with the idea of what has become a popular tribute to Johnson, a poster that features 11 signs in the area that offered words of praise for the fallen firefighter.
Slattery lives two doors down from the Johnsons and Barrett works at a printing company. The two men are going to sell the posters for $10 a piece, with all proceeds going to the Johnson family. More information is at www.mtgeng.com, his website.
“It hits hard,” Barrett said. “I didn’t know Herbie that well. I knew him from Frank, but something like this hits close to home.”
Johnson received a hero’s farewell when he was laid to rest Thursday at Mount Olivet cemetery in the Morgan Park community.
Residents from the surrounding neighborhoods lined the blocks, carrying American and Irish flags, sporting firefighter and police formal wear and city of Chicago sweatshirts. The earthy tones of bagpipes filled the air.
Little boys and girls saluted as his casket rolled by, past the mounted police, underneath two firetrucks, and into the graveyard, the final resting place for many of the neighborhood’s finest.
Sandy McShane, whose husband is a fire department battalion chief, said she watched a similar ceremony 30 years ago, when a family member died in the line of duty.
“It’s a big deal,” McShane said. “Police and firefighters touch our hearts.”