Churchgoers remember fallen Chicago firefighter
By Casey Toner Sun-Times Media firstname.lastname@example.org November 4, 2012 8:14PM
Herbie Johnson (left), 54, a resident of Chicago's Morgan Park community, and a 33-year veteran of the department, is promoted to the rank of captain by Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago on Aug. 10, 2012. | Fire Media Affairs photo
Updated: December 6, 2012 6:26AM
Parishioners at St. Cajetan Parish in Morgan Park mourned Chicago Fire Department Capt. Herbie Johnson Sunday, remembering him as a man who rallied the troops for the church.
Johnson, 54, died Friday from injuries suffered while battling a house fire in the 2300 block of West 50th Place, becoming the first Chicago firefighter to die in the line of duty since 2010. He was a lifelong parishioner at St. Cajetan, at 2445 West 112th St., Chicago.
During Sunday’s 11 a.m. service, parishioners remembered him during the prayers of the faithful. Johnson’s brother-in-law attended the ceremony but declined to comment.
Afterward, the Rev. Frank Kurucz said Johnson often used his abundant charisma for the parish’s benefit. He coached the elementary school’s athletic teams, attended church picnics and fund-raisers and he was a former president of the St. Cajetan Men’s Club.
“If you said, ‘Herbie, we need this, he got it done,’” said Joe Roccasalva, a church deacon and fire department spokesman.
Kurucz said the church has helped the neighborhood heal after Johnson’s death.
“We’re our own family,” Kurucz said. “When we go through crisis, we come together.”
John Walsh, 46, attended Sunday’s service and was a firefighter with Chicago Fire Department Engine 88. He said Johnson taught him at the fire academy and said that he had a booming laugh.
“I’d be over at his firehouse, and you didn’t have to set an alarm,” Walsh said. “You could hear his laugh through the door and know it was time to get up.”
Trish O’Shea, one of Johnson’s neighbors, said she was in shock after hearing he died.
“This is not something that happens to Herbie,” O’Shea said. “You expect him to be the first one into a fire and you expect him to be the last one out, too.”
A retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, O’Shea used to invite Johnson to talk to her students every year at Dunne Technology Academy and Kate Starr Kellogg Elementary School.
He would always show up and teach the kids about fire prevention and what to do in case of a fire. For the smaller children, he would bring coloring books and show off his bright reflective firefighting gear so they would not be afraid of it in case of an emergency.
“He would make the kids promise to hold a fire drill at night and they almost all did it,” O’Shea said.
O’Shea said one of her students who lived in the Mount Greenwood community had a home fire and the family managed to escape unscathed due in part to Johnson’s instruction.
“When it was over, he wrote Herbie a thank you note that said that ‘If you hadn’t taught me, my family could have died,” O’Shea said.
O’Shea said he was a great neighbor, too, and his sense of civic responsibility was unwavering. One time, when a woman suffered a diabetic reaction on her front porch, Johnson showed up before the paramedics arrived and offered her orange juice to raise her blood sugar level.
“Anyone who met him once felt like they knew him,” O’Shea said. “He was very friendly and very loud. He had a laugh that could permeate the neighborhood.”
McNally’s, a bar on Western Avenue that’s popular among firefighters, eulogized Johnson with their sign out front.
“We R Speechless,” the sign said. “Herbie never was.”
Johnson’s funeral mass will be 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Rita of Cascia High School, 7740 S. Western. Visitation is Wednesday evening at the school, which Johnson and his children attended.