Fallen firefighter had deep St. Rita roots

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If you wonder how many lives one man can touch, consider the case of Herbie Johnson.

The veteran Chicago firefighter was 54 when he died on Nov. 2 while battling a blaze in the Gage Park neighborhood.

His wake and funeral were held last week at the St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel on the campus of St. Rita High School, drawing huge crowds each day. It was a fitting location because Johnson gave a big part of his life to the school and its sports teams.

Many football weekends, he would wheel in his Winnebago, park it in the back lot and get to work at the concession stand. Maybe he’d steal away every once in a while to watch someone in his extended family playing for the Mustangs.

Sons Tommy and Mickey played strong safety for the St. Rita football team, and Mickey was one of the stars of the Mustangs’ 2010 victory over rival Mount Carmel, returning a punt for a touchdown.

It seemed like in every picture of Herbie Johnson that appeared in the newspapers and on TV last week, he had a big smile. Was it even bigger that night when his son was one of the heroes?

“Every football night was a big night for Herbie,” said St. Rita coach Todd Kuska, who got to know Johnson when his sons were playing grammar-school football. “All of us coaches knew him for years and years.”

Herbie was the kind of guy you see at a lot of around the Catholic League, one whose family sent generations of boys to the same school and whose work behind the scenes helps make the game day experience something special.

Two of Herbie’s nephews are part of the program: junior Jack Ladd as a player and freshman Mike Johnson as a manager. Family members were there at the school two Fridays ago, when the Mustangs beat Leo in a Prep Bowl playoff game, before leaving for the hospital when the terrible news arrived.

There was a moment of silence for Herbie that night and the Mustangs — who will play Brother Rice Saturday for a berth in the Prep Bowl — have added stickers to their helmets commemorating him.

But Herbie will be remembered long after the current players have graduated and the stickers have faded.

He’ll be remembered for that smile. He’ll be remembered for his greetings — “When he gave you a hug, you knew you’d just been hugged,” Kuska said. He’ll be remembered for the ease in which he turned strangers into friends. Mickey Johnson went off to play football at Carthage College in Kenosha, and his dad was the president of the team’s tailgaters club. How many out-of-state parents slide into a job like that when their son’s a freshman?

But that’s the kind of guy Herbie was: a fireman, a family man and a friend who was good at all three.

This is a tough time for the school Herbie Johnson loved. But the members of Mustang Nation will be there for each other and they will honor his memory by trying to follow the example he set.

“St. Rita is all about family,” Kuska said. “When families are hurting inside the family, we all hurt for them.”

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