'A tremendous leader': Firefighters pay tribute to former Wheaton, Flossmoor chief
If there's a single image that defines former Wheaton Fire Chief Greg Berk, it's the one of him holding court at a training exercise about a year before his retirement.
Berk stood front and center, instructing a group of firefighters from Wheaton, Carol Stream, Winfield and West Chicago. His leadership cut across department boundaries.
"That would be him to a T right there," Wheaton City Manager Mike Dzugan said.
Firefighters gave a final salute to Berk at his funeral earlier this week. Berk, 75, died on June 18 in Arizona, where he and his wife, Donna, had a home in Tucson. He was buried in Wheaton.
Berk inspired generations of firefighters over a career spanning 46 years.
"He was always a mentor to me," Wheaton Fire Chief Bill Schultz said. "And that is a great way to describe him. He just always tried to help others, help serve. Any place that he went, he immersed himself and became part of the community."
Schultz, who dedicated 34 years of his own life to the fire service, retired Friday. Schultz and his mentor both started their careers in the south suburbs.
Berk became a volunteer firefighter in Flossmoor in 1967. He was sworn in as the village's first full-time fire chief about a decade later.
"They're a very tight-knit community," said Schultz, who worked under Berk in the Flossmoor Fire Department. "And he was born and raised there. It was his sense of giving back to the community that drew him to the fire department, and so then it just kind of took off from there."
Their careers would overlap again. Shortly after Schultz was named a Wheaton battalion chief in 2003, Berk took the helm of the city's fire department after 25 years as Flossmoor's chief.
He didn't dwell on goodbyes. Berk's last day in Flossmoor was on a Friday, and he reported to work in Wheaton on a Monday.
"I just keep on moving," Berk told the Daily Herald in 2003. "When you love what you do, it's not a problem. I love the fire service."
During his tenure, the department and fire districts in Carol Stream, Winfield and West Chicago formed a new alliance to coordinate training and prepare for big emergencies. Berk was one of the founding chiefs of the West Suburban Fire Rescue Alliance, a group that now encompasses Bloomingdale and Roselle.
"From my perspective, it was all about a functional cooperation, working better together, being able to be more seamless between the agencies in terms of operationally when we arrive on a scene," said Winfield Fire Chief Steve Evans, then a lieutenant.
Firefighters are split into three shifts, and the alliance holds monthly training drills for each shift on water rescues, technical rescues and dealing with hazardous materials.
"It's that chance to get different crews from all the different agencies working together for real, first-class training. ... It's been incredible for our communities," Evans said.
He also considers Berk a mentor.
"Chief Berk was a tremendous leader," Evans said. "He was very kind to me."
Berk was a past president of the Illinois Firefighter's Association and an adjunct faculty member at Southern Illinois University.
"I remember Greg as being a strong advocate for training," said Dzugan, who was an assistant city manager at the time. "That was very, very important to him, to develop people to be leaders in the various areas of firefighting, such as fire suppression and disaster preparedness."
Berk's children followed in his footsteps. His son, Matthew Berk, is the assistant fire chief in Flossmoor. His daughter, Rachel, is a police sergeant in Roselle. His other son, Joshua Berk, was a police officer in Orland Park and now is a federal agent serving in embassies and consulates overseas.
"I know how proud he was of his kids," Schultz said.
He succeeded Berk as chief in 2013.
"In my own personal career, he gave me many opportunities to learn, and he tried to kind of teach along the way," Schultz said. "I wouldn't be where I'm at today, I believe, without having his influence on my career for sure. And he did that for many people."