‘He put his service above himself': Mourners gather to remember fallen Chicago firefighter
Lieutenant Kevin Ward was remembered for his many talents, hobbies and nearly 30 years of service
By Jake Sheridan
CHICAGO — The mourners who were gathered at the funeral of Chicago Fire Department Lt. Kevin Ward faced a tough challenge in summing up his vibrant life in sentences.
The firefighter, who was seriously injured while battling an August residential blaze in Norwood Park and died weeks later, enjoyed a life teeming with off-beat passions, they said.
Ward, 59, had been an Alaskan commercial fishing boat’s deckhand, a Colorado hotel’s chef and a Chicago Mercantile Exchange options trader. He could expertly blow glass, weld and even rebuilt the engine of a Porsche. He was a masterful scuba diver and a household name among American underwater hockey players.
And in the midst of an overflowing personal life, he managed to fit in a nearly three-decade career serving at the Chicago Fire Department.
“How do you describe such an interesting person with just a few words?” said CFD Capt. Anthony Massaro, who served with Ward on the department’s Truck 9.
Loved ones, fellow firefighters and city officials remembered Ward Wednesday as diligent in his curiosity, generous in his friendship and dedicated in his service.
The same traits that led him to tackle tough hobbies like rock climbing and sailing were ones that gave him the courage to run into burning buildings to save lives, they said.
“He did not lack fear,” his former wife Corrinne Walenda said in a eulogy. “But he was able to compartmentalize it and let logic prevail.”
Ward worked at CFD’s O’Hare International Airport station, on the Hazmat team and in other roles during his 28-year career before he was seriously hurt in the Aug. 11 blaze. He died at Loyola Medical Center on Aug. 28, marking the department’s third line-of-duty death this year.
LODD: Chicago firefighter succumbs to injuries from basement fire
Firefighters responded to a basement fire in the 8300 block of West Balmoral Avenue. During the fire, a mayday was transmitted for three injured firefighters.
Ahead of his funeral, authorities ordered flags across Chicago to half-staff and closed a five-block stretch of Michigan Avenue along the Chicago Water Tower and the 875 North Michigan Avenue building, the former John Hancock Center. Ward’s body was carried from the Engine 98 station into Streeterville’s Fourth Presbyterian Church.
Along the route, the piercing notes of a band of bagpipers seemed to freeze dozens of commuting businesspeople and tourists. Many watched in silence.
A line of police on horseback came next, followed by the Fire Department’s Truck 9.
Finally, a fire engine slowly passed beneath the American flag hung between two outstretched fire ladders and stopped in front of the church. Ward’s Chicago flag-draped casket was removed from the vehicle and brought inside.
For hours before the funeral, Ward’s family greeted mourners near his body at the neo-Gothic sanctuary’s altar. Hundreds of firefighters raised their right arms to salute as they passed the casket and filled the wooden pews.
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson sat in the front row before rising to honor Ward as a “Renaissance man” and a hero.
“He put his service above himself,” Johnson said. “Know that the city of Chicago is standing with you.”
Massaro recalled Ward’s love for adventure. No audacious plan seemed out of reach for Ward, and the firefighter found joy in solving inconvenient problems, he said.
“If somebody told you they went skydiving with their dog last week, you would probably say, ‘You’re kidding.’ But with Kevin, you just look at him and say, ‘How was it?’” Massaro said.
“This was a man who was excited when the transmission on his car went out because he got to go home, take it apart and fix it,” he added.
He brought his beloved German shepherd, Skye, into the fire station often, Massaro said. The dog would announce Ward’s arrival with a bark at the door, he said.
The captain presented a decal featuring the image of a German shepherd that will be placed on the station’s trucks to honor the fallen firefighter. It will remind people that their lives are fragile and that they should live them to the fullest, Massaro said.
“Just like Kevin did,” he said.
Ward scuba dived 400 times in two years after learning how, Walenda said. He explored Lake Michigan shipwrecks, squeezed through underwater cave networks in Mexico and swam with green sea turtles in Hawaii, she said.
His work as a chef made him a great cook, a talent he often used in the firehouse, she said.
“The trouble was, when he came to our house to cook, he cooked as if there were 15 men in the house,” Walenda said.
She likened her ex-husband and dear friend, an avid reader, to the venturesome characters of his favorite book, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” as she challenged mourners to go on their own adventures.
“Do that, and the spirit of Lt. Kevin Peter Ward will live on,” she said, fighting tears.
Ward’s father, John Ward, remembered his son eagerly reading the Guinness Book of World Records as a child. The man he raised had helped him build local theater sets, driven him around in the self-fixed Porsche and taken him on hikes around Colorado, the father said.
“I watched him take his first breath. I watched him take his last breath. I loved him. I will miss him,” he said.
Ward planned to soon retire to a mountain cabin near Denver, John Ward said. It sat on a rocky outcrop. He could see Denver and the Great Plains to the east and the Continental Divide to the west, he said.
The home is where John Ward chooses to remember his son, he said.