The eyes of heroes: Exhibit honoring fallen Illinois soldiers travels to Naperville

  • The 95th Street Library in Naperville is hosting "Portrait of a Soldier" -- an exhibit featuring sketches of Illinois soldiers killed since Sept. 11, 2001, in the war on terror -- through March 6.

      The 95th Street Library in Naperville is hosting "Portrait of a Soldier" -- an exhibit featuring sketches of Illinois soldiers killed since Sept. 11, 2001, in the war on terror -- through March 6. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Through March 6, visitors to the 95th Street Library in Naperville can view the "Portrait of a Soldier" exhibit honoring Illinois soldiers killed since Sept. 11, 2001, in the global war on terror.

      Through March 6, visitors to the 95th Street Library in Naperville can view the "Portrait of a Soldier" exhibit honoring Illinois soldiers killed since Sept. 11, 2001, in the global war on terror. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted2/28/2022 5:30 AM

Cameron Schilling always started with the eyes when he embarked upon a new sketch.

In memorializing the hundreds of Illinois soldiers killed since Sept. 11, 2001, in the global war on terrorism, Schilling put every ounce of his artistic talents into drawing respectful representations of the fallen men and women that he'd present to the Gold Star families.

 

In completing the vision, getting the eyes right was critical.

"I remember one of the Gold Star mothers told me I got her son's eyes perfect and that he was looking back at her," Schilling said. "That was the biggest compliment I could ever have.

"I wanted to do something, and I wanted to help," he said. "The only thing I knew I could do well was draw."

Schilling's work, and the work in more recent years of Donald and Kiana Jeremiah, is on display through March 6 at the Naperville Public Library's 95th Street location, 3015 Cedar Glade Road. The sketches shown in "Portrait of a Soldier," an exhibit that's traveled throughout the state for more than a decade, stand as an emotional reminder of the sacrifices made by so many Illinois families.

Bradley H. Beste is one of hundreds of Illinois soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan being honored in an exhibit of sketches on display at the 95th Street Library in Naperville.
  Bradley H. Beste is one of hundreds of Illinois soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan being honored in an exhibit of sketches on display at the 95th Street Library in Naperville. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Former Gov. Pat Quinn, who attended numerous funerals for soldiers killed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, persuaded Schilling, an aide during Quinn's time in office, to display the sketches to keep alive the memory of those killed.

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Quinn was part of the ceremony last Sunday that opened the exhibit in Naperville. City councilmen and military veterans Ben White and Ian Holzhauer were among the others attending.

"It's a great place to do it," Quinn said. "Hopefully, people are exposed to something that will stay with them in their memory."

Schilling, from Mattoon, began sketching fallen Illinois soldiers in 2004 while he was a student at Eastern Illinois University. When high school classmate Charles Neeley was killed in Iraq, Schilling felt a sense of duty to commemorate the loss.

Schilling gave the sketch to Neeley's family, and his mission began. He tirelessly sought pictures of the Illinois soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a list that grew to more than 300, with help from Quinn's office in connecting with the families.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As the collection of sketches expanded, Quinn's idea to create an exhibit was born. The display went from college campuses and high schools to libraries and train stations, giving people a sense of the loss felt throughout the state.

Holzhauer, who served in the Air Force from 2007 to 2014, reached out to Quinn about displaying the exhibit in Naperville. They decided the 95th Street Library was the ideal location.

"This is the first time I've looked at an exhibit and thought, 'This is really capturing the sacrifice of the post-9/11 service member,'" Holzhauer said. "If someone died in 2002, their parents are getting up there in age. It's important to memorialize this while the relatives are still here to see it."

Dan Shanower, who died during the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, is among the hundreds of Illinois soldiers honored in the "Portrait of a Soldier" exhibit on display through March 6 at the 95th Street Library in Naperville.
  Dan Shanower, who died during the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, is among the hundreds of Illinois soldiers honored in the "Portrait of a Soldier" exhibit on display through March 6 at the 95th Street Library in Naperville. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

The Jeremiah family became involved through Donald, an American Airlines employee. The airline displayed the "Portrait of a Soldier" exhibit every Memorial Day in its terminal at O'Hare Airport, and in 2018 he learned Schilling was looking for a new artist to continue the work after he moved to the Washington area.

Jeremiah talked to his daughter, Kiana, now 24, and they were more than willing to pick up the torch.

"This project has a special place in our hearts because my grandfather (on David's side) was a fallen soldier himself," said Kiana Jeremiah, who's from Streamwood. "He lost his life in Vietnam. Doing these portraits for these families gives us a wholesome, full-circle feeling."

While Schilling has drawn nearly 300 of the sketches, the Jeremiah family has completed 23. Kiana Jeremiah said it's been about a year since she finished a sketch, which takes her a total of about 15 hours.

Like Schilling, she starts with the eyes as she carries on the legacy.

"It's been extremely rewarding for me," Schilling said. "The best part of this project was talking to families and getting to know their sons and daughters and why they were serving.

"I'm glad it's become an exhibit," he said. "I was just honored to be a part of it."

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