'I know that parade': Gary Sinise returns to Highland Park to meet 'hurting' first responders
Gary Sinise was driving to play a concert for troops in Kentucky when he heard about the mass shooting at Highland Park's July 4 parade.
"I know that parade," the actor and musician said in a phone interview. "I was in that parade."
As a child, Sinise, an Oscar nominee for his role in "Forrest Gump," lived just blocks from where the rooftop gunman fired into the crowd, killing seven and wounding dozens of others. A 10-year-old Sinise rode the parade route in a soap box derby car. Years later, he and other members of Steppenwolf Theatre -- founded in Highland Park -- rode in the parade atop a fire truck.
That's why the tragedy hit home, and he returned July 22 to visit first responders and don an apron to serve them barbecue as part of the Gary Sinise Foundation's Serving Heroes program.
"I went there to raise spirits and to show some support," Sinise said. "I think it was helpful to have people come in who were showing that they cared and were thinking about the officers and the firefighters."
During the visit, police officers and firefighters shared their July 4 experiences.
"Many of the people I engaged with responded to the incident," Sinise said. "So they were hurting, no question. They saw a lot of wounded people. They had to evacuate wounded people. There was death, and it was difficult to see that."
Highland Park police Chief Lou Jogmen said Sinise asked how he and his staff were doing and listened to what they had to say.
"He gave so many reassuring words," Jogmen said. "He wanted us to know just how much he, as an American and a former resident, was filled with pride with the work we all did that day. He wanted us to know that he was proud of the community and how we all responded.
"We were just struck by his humbleness, his compassion, his genuineness," Jogmen said. "He was here to really listen and to share in our grief."
In visiting with firefighters, Sinise asked how he could help, Fire Chief Joe Schrage said.
Sinise also stopped to visit the memorials for the July 4 victims. It was a moment, he said, of "terrible sadness" but also reflection.
Sinise, who lives in Thousand Oaks, California, recalled Nov. 7, 2018, when, 15 minutes from his home, a mass shooter killed 11 people at the Borderline Bar and Grill. A Ventura County sheriff's sergeant also was killed responding to the scene.
"There were makeshift memorials set up (in Thousand Oaks), and when I was standing there in front of the memorials in Highland Park, I couldn't help but think back to just about four years ago when I was standing in Thousand Oaks doing the same thing," Sinise said.
"It's terrible to see loved ones lost to senseless acts of violence."
Sinise said his foundation also provided meals at the Ventura County sheriff's department in the wake of that shooting. He said first responders had to contend with the Woolsey wildfire in Ventura County at the same time.
Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band, named for his "Forrest Gump" character, headlined a Concert for Defenders to honor first responders and those who lost their lives at the time. He has been active in supporting first responders since Sept. 11, 2001.
Sinise's Highland Park visit helped at a time when the North Shore suburb is going through a long healing process.
"The community really has gathered together. We're mourning together and at the same time we're celebrating life together," Schrage said.
Jogmen described the community processing the tragedy as a "surreal moment in time." Yet, he said, "you see these little glimmers of humanity."
He received a glimpse of that heading home on the afternoon of Sinise's visit. Driving through the center of town, he spotted a man standing by the memorial near the train station in beige pants and a black shirt.
"And I'm like, 'Oh, that's Gary Sinise.' Just like any other human being, he was just there, in the moment, just standing there with his hands in his pockets, looking at the people that we lost, looking at the memorial, taking it in," Jogmen said. "And then he was having his moment of grief and sorrow that we're all having."