The three Chicago cops died long ago. In 1864, 1914 and 2001.
But on Thursday, in the shadow of Soldier Field, the officers’ names were finally added to the Memorial Wall honoring Chicago cops who died from on-the-job injuries.
The memorial wall is run by the non-profit Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, which has a committee dedicated to researching the deaths of officers who may have been overlooked.
Chicago was a different city when each of the men died. Here are their stories.
Officer John Churchwood was trying to deal with a drunk Union soldier who’d been panhandling on city streets and threatened to stab someone who refused to give him money when the two men got into a physical altercation. It was a year before the end of the Civil War. During the tussle, Churchwood suffered a broken thumb which became infected and led to Churchwood’s death on March 24, 1864.
Fifty years later, motorcycle patrolman Austin L. Fitch was motoring down the 2000 block of South Michigan Avenue when he swerved to avoid debris on the roadway and crashed into a pedestrian. The pedestrian received minor injuries. Fitch’s were fatal. He died eight days later, on Nov. 24, 1914.
And it was 54 years later when, on June 4, 1968, Officer Edward L. Simanek Sr. pulled a car over for a traffic violation on the West Side near Kedzie and Harrison.
The vehicle was a jitney cab — a taxi that operated without a license — and, unbeknownst to Simanek or his partner, a man who was wanted for an armed robbery was hiding on the floor in the back of the car.
The gunman popped up and shot Simanek from close range. A bullet entered his right cheek and exited the back of his neck. Another bullet hit him in the buttocks. Police were able to apprehend the gunman. Simanek, critically wounded, briefly went into cardiac arrest, but doctors revived him.
He was hospitalized for five months, then for much of the next five years.
“I was eight when that happened,” said Simanek’s daughter, Karen Mercado, who, along with her older brother and mom became his caretakers.
Simanek was partially paralyzed on his left side, facial reconstruction left him looking like a different person, a damaged voice box left him raspy and he could consume only liquids and diced up food — and only while lying at a certain angle.
Simanek’s wife, Dolores, began working at a paper factory to support the family. And despite their hardships, the couple watched their kids grow up.
Simanek was there in 1994 when his daughter became a cop. Her father’s old beat-up police star appeared in the brown envelope she was handed at the start of her career.
“It was a heart-touching moment,” she told the Sun-Times this week. “We’d been through a lot together. And I made the promise that I would never lose it and always wear it with honor,” Mercado said.
Simanek died Aug. 28, 2001, from the injuries suffered 33 years earlier.
“Thursday’s event is in memory of my dad, but it’s in honor of my mom, because she kept us together.”
After 23 years on the job, Mercado retired from CPD in May. Only then did she seek special honors for her father. She knew the department might want to retire her father’s star number — a sign of respect — but she had wanted to carry it with her until her last day on the job.
Mercado was at the ceremony on Thursday. So was her mother, Dolores, who just turned 90. Simanek’s namesake son died after a heart attack late last year.
Researchers for the Police Memorial Foundation could not locate relatives of Civil War era Officer John Churchwood.
Susan Roentz, 54, a great-granddaughter of motorcycle patrolman Austin Fitch was, however, at the ceremony.
“This will make 578 names on the wall,” Police Memorial Foundation President Phil Cline said. “And you know this really means a lot to the families.”
The research the Foundation did which led their executive board to conclude the three officers died in the line of duty has been passed along to CPD to help officials there determine if each death meets their criteria for fallen officers.
The department has a separate honor for such officers: their police stars are on display in a glass case in the lobby of CPD headquarters at 3510 S. Michigan Ave.
“We give the police department all of our research and it’s up to them,” Cline said. “So far everyone we’ve sent them, they agree on.”