'He didn't know how great he was': Portion of I-94 named for trooper who died stopping wrong-way driver

On a damp and gloomy Monday, the rain stopped just in time for the impassioned ceremony to rename a half-mile section of Interstate 94 in Green Oaks in memory of Illinois State Trooper Gerald W. Ellis of Antioch.

The 36-year-old husband and father of two was killed March 30 when he drove his squad car into the path of a drunken driver heading the wrong way on that expressway in order to stop him.

"I'm honored, and Jerry would be, too," said the officer's widow, Stacy Ellis, as their daughters Kaylee, 7, and Zoe, 6, stayed by her side. But her focus is on the future.

"When the kids go to college, they'll drive by that sign," said Ellis, who was married to the trooper for nine years. "It's 15 minutes away from our house. It will remind me how much I miss him and how great a guy he was. I lost my best friend."

State Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake and State Rep. Joyce Mason of Gurnee honored the trooper's memory, and Bush read a House resolution praising Ellis for willingly driving into the path of an oncoming car to save others.

The signs marking the section from mile marker 16.5 to mile marker 17 will be a reminder "to thank Jerry for what he did for us," said Illinois State Police District 15 Capt. Dominic Chiappini. "He was prepared and dedicated every day he put that uniform on."

Citing Ellis' "exceptional bravery and heroism," the Rev. Harold Stanger of St. Marcelline Catholic Parish in Schaumburg called Ellis a "peacemaker" who gave his life to help others. "There is no greater love than this," Stanger said.

The memorial highway signs "will forever mark the spot where Jerry made the ultimate sacrifice," said friend and fellow State Trooper Thomas Brengel. "Our hearts will never forget you."

There was more laughter than tears at the dedication ceremony under a shelter in Townline Community Park of Lake Forest as Brengel and others remembered a friend who was witty, fun to be around, and a jokester. As wind whipped the speakers' papers, Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly said, "Jerry's having fun with us."

Hours after the 3:25 a.m. Saturday crash in March that killed Ellis and the drunken driver, Kelly went to the Ellis home with the awful news.

"You could feel the love in that house," Kelly said, noting that the trooper's "greatest memorial" would be his wife and daughters. Turning to Stacy Ellis, Kelly said, "You should be proud of the wonderful family you and Jerry created."

After thanking dignitaries, clergy and fellow officers for the tribute, Stacy Ellis recapped her husband's life cut short.

"Jerry was an amazing human, full of life, love, compassion and dedication to his work, and family and laughter," she said. He also served in the Army before his 11 years as a state trooper with District 15.

"He was not just one of the good guys, he was one of the great guys," said Mason, who said she feels as if she knows the man she never met because of her time spent with his widow since the crash. "Her love for him is infectious."

Stacy Ellis sat beside Jerry's mom, Debbie, and the two young girls clutched stuffed puppies given to them by members of the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, who brought several comfort dogs to the dedication. After the dedication ceremony, a procession of about 100 squad cars with flashing lights made their way to the section of I-94 that is now known as the Trooper Gerald W. Ellis Memorial Highway.

"He's the best human I ever met in my life," Stacy Ellis said of her departed husband. "He didn't know how great he was."

Illinois State Trooper Gerald Ellis
  Police and firefighters salute on the Bradley Road bridge for a procession of law enforcement vehicles honoring State Trooper Gerald W. Ellis of Antioch. A portion of the highway was named in his memory. Mark Welsh/
  The stretch of I-94 North from mile marker 16.5 to marker 17 will be dedicated to honor Illinois State Trooper Gerald Ellis. Mark Welsh/
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