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30th annual service remembers Chicago firefighters killed in service

George Radkplays Taps during Chicago Fire Fighters UniLocal No. 2 30th Annual Memorial Services Rosehill Cemetery Sunday September 30 2012.

George Radka plays Taps during Chicago Fire Fighters Union, Local No. 2, 30th Annual Memorial Services at Rosehill Cemetery, Sunday, September 30, 2012. l John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 30, 2012 9:18PM

The Chicago Fire Fighters Union memorial service on Sunday marked the third for Mary Wheatley since her son, Christopher, died at age 31 after falling 35 feet while fighting a West Loop restaurant fire.

“It’s a worry to have someone who has a very risky career,” she said after the 30th annual memorial service for fallen Chicago firefighters at Rosehill Cemetery. “We look for inspiration from each other and ways to honor (those who’ve died on duty) in our own lives.”

Chris Wheatley, who died on Aug. 9, 2010, after falling off of a ladder while carrying 75 pounds of equipment, was described by colleagues as always having a smile on his face.

His mother agreed.

“He understood that life should be a celebration and that it is a gift that is given to us,” Mary Wheatley said.

Chris Wheatley dropped out of his business-school studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago when he was 19 to train to be a paramedic.

The decision was yet another in Chris’ life of service and caring for others, his mother said. He was a popular football player at Lemont High School and served as a Eucharistic minister as a teen-ager at his church, St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Lemont. And Chris had always admired his uncle, the late retired Chicago Fire Battalion Chief Patrick Delaney, the eldest of 10 children in Mary Wheatley’s family.

The Wheatley family set up a non-profit foundation to continue Chris’ “generosity of spirit,” as his mother described it, to raise money for scholarships for young people going into firefighting and emergency medicine. Nine scholarships have been awarded in the past two years by the Firefighter/Paramedic Christopher D. Wheatley Memorial Foundation.

The foundation raised $18,000 this year and $8,000 in 2011 for scholarships for two Lemont High School students, and for two scholarships covering four years of study through the Chicago Fire Department Gold Badge Society.

The Foundation also is partnering with the Romeoville Fire Academy to award a core-studies scholarship worth $11,000 where Chris Wheatley started his career.

The foundation is completing plans to award another scholarship to a fourth-year student majoring in emergency medicine at UIC.

While Mary Wheatley recalls beautiful national firefighters’ memorial services she has attended in Emmitsburg, Md., and in Colorado Springs, Colo., she said the Chicago service is special because of the palpable support the local brotherhood and sisterhood provide.

Besides, she said, “Chris chose UIC because it was in the city and he loved the neighborhood. He absolutely loved Chicago.”

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