'Among the better angels': State trooper Gerald Ellis remembered for his humor, dedication
Loving husband and devoted father who happily donned a tiara for his young daughters. Dedicated law enforcement officer who a week before he died saved an injured person by performing CPR. A man of good humor ready with a joke and always willing to lend a helping hand.
That was how friends and family remembered Illinois State Police trooper Gerald "Jerry" Ellis, 36, during his funeral Friday at the College of Lake County James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts in Grayslake.
Fellow troopers spoke fondly of Ellis during the service before a capacity crowd that included Ellis' wife, Stacy, and daughters Kaylee and Zoe in the first row. Dozens upon dozens of Illinois troopers and law enforcement officers filled the theater. Some of them spoke and sang during the ceremony, which included addresses by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Acting Director of the Illinois State Police Brendan F. Kelly and others.
"When I think of the stories I have of Jerry, I can't help but laugh. It's what Jerry would have wanted from all of us, to laugh," said Sgt. Nick Severson, who attended the police academy with Ellis and worked with him nightly for six years.
Trooper Thomas Brengel recalled his friend's face lighting up when he spoke about his family.
"Losing you hurts so incredibly deep in a place I never knew existed," he said. "But I'd rather feel this awful pain than have never known you. You're our hero; you'll never be forgotten."
A U.S. Army veteran and an 11-year officer with state police District 15, responsible for patrolling 294 miles of northern Illinois' interstate highways, Ellis was off duty and heading to his Antioch home Saturday when a Calumet City man with alcohol in his system struck the trooper's car head on while driving the wrong way on I-94.
Ellis knew what he wanted to do in life as a youngster, said Pritzker, from the day when -- as a toddler -- he watched a police officer issue his mother a traffic ticket.
"He was in awe of the officer," said Pritzker, who described Ellis as a kind, big-hearted person who made people laugh from the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes.
"He was someone whose kindness inspired you to live better ... who had the knack of making you feel good about yourself just by being around ... the friend who reminds you of what it means to be among the better angels," Pritzker said.
Ellis' death marks the third of an Illinois trooper this year. Christopher Lambert, 34, was also off duty in January when he was killed while responding to multiple vehicles that crashed on the Tri-State Tollway near Northbrook. Last week, Brooke Jones-Story, 34, was struck by a semitrailer truck while she was inspecting another truck she had pulled to the shoulder.
Kelly acknowledged the loss suffered by the state police, noting that it has been 66 years since the department lost three troopers in one year.
"And it's only April," he said.
He went on to salute Ellis and his fellow troopers, comparing them to Isaiah who, when God asked, "Who shall I send," responded, "Here I am, send me."
"When the men and the women of the Illinois State Police are asked to do just about anything, they will answer: 'Here I am, send me,'" Kelly said.
Kelly hailed Ellis and his fellow officers who patrol dangerous streets, comfort victims, crawl into sewers to retrieve a murder weapon, "look evil in the face and interrogate a serial murderer," risk life and limb to keep state roads safe, search miles for a missing person, or administer Narcan to an overdose victim.
"Who will get hit in their squad car, survive serious injuries and go right back to patrolling like Trooper Ellis did in 2009? You answered, send me," said Kelly. "Who will drive head on into danger to protect others? The answer was and is from all troopers: Here I am, send me."
Hundreds expressed their gratitude by lining the funeral route to the cemetery.
More than 150 people, many holding U.S. flags or carrying signs that read "hero," gathered at the Lake County Farm Bureau on Route 45 in Grayslake to pay respect to Ellis as the funeral procession passed.
"He served his country, he served his community and he ultimately gave his life to protect people," said Grayslake resident Victoria Carton, a member of the Grayslake Rotary. "He's a special hero."
Grayslake Exchange Club member Ryan Curtis of McHenry agreed.
"The road will be filled with special heroes today," said Curtis, referring to the hundreds of police officers participating in the procession.
The trooper's story touched Grayslake resident Linda Durley.
"It feels good to come out here to support him," she said. "He's a member of our community."
Donations to the Ellis family can be made by visiting the Illinois State Police Heritage Foundation website at isphf.org/donations and noting Trooper Gerald Ellis Memorial Fund in the comments section.
Donations also can be mailed to the foundation at P.O. Box 8168, Springfield IL 62791.
• Daily Herald staff writer Lee Filas contributed to this report.