No one knows how John Minich ended up in a grave with no headstone in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines. The 43-year-old Chicago firefighter died almost 60 years ago on Oct. 25, 1952, collapsing after rescuing a very pregnant woman from a residential hotel fire on the North Side.
Debbie McCann, 59, was born a month prematurely 12 days later and grew up hearing her mother talk about how she wouldn't be alive without the firefighter's effort to get her out of the building.
But when McCann began trying to find Minich's grave, she couldn't locate it.
From that difficulty grew McCann's search, her discovery of the unmarked grave with help from a friend, her effort to have a tombstone placed, the aid of others inspired by her effort, all culminating in a grand ceremony recently at the cemetery with bagpipes and an honor guard. Firefighters from Des Plaines and Mount Prospect joined in the recognition ceremony.
"I was thrilled," said McCann, who lives in Chicago and works in the health care industry. "It was an amazing event."
Minich's wife is buried next to him, also without a headstone. McCann says her next quest is to get a tombstone for her.
McCann said she has always felt Minich's presence in her life, kind of like a guardian angel. "He's always been with me."
But she didn't decide to see where he was buried until a couple of years ago when a friend said, "Let's visit the grave."
She tried the library but found very little on the man who had held a cloth over her mother's mouth.
"He saved many lives and my mother," she said. Even as he was beginning to collapse, "he wanted to make sure they got to the ambulance."
To find Minich, she turned to John Stewart, a friend who worked at All Saints. Minich turned out to be buried at All Saints.
"What a coincidence," she said. "I knew it would be Catholic because he gave the crucifix to my mother."
But Stewart told her he was in an unmarked grave.
"I was appalled," she said. "It really bothered me."
She said she wanted to get a tombstone, but Stewart said first he would talk to a friend in the fire department. That led to the firefighters union getting involved.
"We're going to take care of this," Tom Ryan, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, told her. "We must do this for our brother."
The union couldn't locate family, Ryan said, but "We needed to do what was right by him to honor the sacrifice he made. The fire service is all about tradition and we're all about family."
Firefighter Bob Arens approached Tina Diaz, general manager of Mount Emblem Cemetery in Elmhurst, who agreed to donate a tombstone.
"As soon as I heard the story, I knew that Mount Emblem should be involved," Diaz said, pointing to a program by parent company Dignity Memorial to offer burials at no cost for emergency personnel who fall in the line of duty. "Donating a marker for Firefighter Minich seemed like a natural extension of that service."
Then the union planned the ceremony, which turned into a bit of a media event.
"It got so much out of control," said McCann, who nonetheless ignored her aversion to speaking in public to tell people what Minich's sacrifice had meant to her life.
"I'll never forget it," she said of being part of the moving ceremony "he so deserved. He's my hero."