In March of 2011, I posted Maple City Sorrow on the anniversary of the death of Monmouth FD Assistant Chief Dennis Olson, who died in the line of duty on March 6, 1993 while battling a fire in a commercial building in Monmouth, Illinois.
I spent several hours researching news articles and court records in an effort to write an article that was factually accurate. I infused it with recollections of conversations that I had with the widow on social media. To complete the article, I tried to see this tragedy through the eyes of the grieving widow and the range of emotions that would swallow her.
It never occurred to me that Judy would not see the article until almost three years later. And she might never have seen it if her friend, Ed Morris, had not sent her the link.
Imagine just for a minute that you lose the love of your life to a fire, find out that the fire was intentionally set, wait for another 8 months before arrests are made in connection to the fatal fire and then wait another 1-1/2 years to hear the judge sentence the criminals to just 24 years in prison. Would it be possible to even grieve in a traditional sense, knowing that your life partner was murdered? Or would all of the unanswered questions and the feelings of anger, despair and maybe vengeance overpower your grieving or at least displace it at that moment?
I, along with several hundred firefighters, attended the funeral of Dennis Olson. To say that it was emotional is an understatement.
At the end of the service, the widow, Judy Olson, stood up in front of those assembled and with a firm voice basically told everyone to get right with their faith, because you never know when it’s your time.
Since her tragedy, Judy has been a very vocal supporter of firefighter safety. She has counseled other firefighter widows. And she has remained strong in her faith in God.
After she read my article, Maple City Sorrow
Judy wrote: This is the first time I have known or read this tribute. Thank you, Art Goodrich, for writing this tribute and expressing your feelings. Those years of trials were tough to walk through, but I didn’t walk them alone, as God was by my side. Thank you, Ed Morris, for bringing this to my attention. Every time I read of one more firefighter losing their life, another piece of my heart breaks, as I know what those firefighter families and fire departments are going to go through. And I pray they have God to walk them through it, just as He did and still does.
I live with a part of my Soul that is missing. My body felt like a huge chunk was taken out of my side. I mean it really felt that way. It seemed to feel like a "pacman"-shaped piece of me gone. It took a long time for that to fill back in. I also know a piece of my Spirit left that day and has never returned. It was the oddest thing to go through, as I kept feeling like I should have gone with him. We have to remember that,yes; they (Mark Skiles and Jeramie Myers) spent very little time in prison and are the ultimate ones to decide if the two of them took my words seriously and searched for Him while in prison. If not, then they will most likely not spend Eternity in a very pretty place. I leave that decision with God, as he is the final judge!
I never knew about this article that you wrote. It was beautifully written and no one has ever before described exactly how I felt in reference to the part in your letter about forgiving somewhere in the middle of what they actually did and not knowing what they set themselves up for when they, together, made the decision to burn down Term City and in turn, take the life of a human being/husband/father/grandfather and firefighter. I'm so glad to find out that you were at the funeral. John Turnbull had no idea the funeral would be that big; biggest funeral he has ever had. So he didn't have enough pages in the guest book for everyone's name.
Art, so many things were learned from that horrible day. I never blamed the firefighters, as they had never gone through this before; thankfully. Keith Patterson (Monmouth FD firefighter at the time) and Doug Hoelsher (Monmouth FD chief at the time) carried out all the plans for the fire department part of the funeral. I pray this never happens in Monmouth again, but if so, they have learned what should be done, if it does. I was dropped off at the hospital by a Monmouth policeman not knowing Dennis had died. When firefighter's wives ask me now what is the most important thing they can do if something like this happens and, I say the first thing is go to the hospital or the firefighters home as soon as you can. Janet Rutledge Hammond came to my house immediately and I never forgot that. There are so many details to what happened. I started from the very beginning writing notes and I have a testimony I give at churches and other places upon request. It's a great testimony as to how God lead me through the worst event of my whole life. He not only lead me through AFTER he died, He began in January, 1993, BEFORE he died, giving me insight to what was ahead for us. For example, two nights before Dennis was killed, I told him that someone in our family was going to be murdered before long. We were watching TV when I told him how I felt. He turned to me and said: "If that is to be, then there is nothing we can do about it." Also, three weeks before he died we went to a doctor's appointment in Peoria and he said to me, "I pray that when God takes me home, he takes me home swiftly." And when this happened, he died within three minutes time. It's almost more than the human mind can comprehend at times!! But reading the letter you wrote is the first time anyone in almost 21 years has described exactly how I felt and feel. I imagine very few realize that I will never be the same. Very few people know that the h*** in my heart is still there. Very few people can comprehend the part of my Spirit that left me on March 6, 1993. But the letter you wrote describes the wonderful person/firefighter that Dennis was. Your letter perfectly explains the feelings that went through me in trying to accept that they didn't put a bullet in Dennis' head and it could have been any firefighter at the Monmouth Fire Department. But it doesn't change the fact that these two, ignorant guys chose to do this and should have known the possibilities. And to go back home and take a nap that Saturday afternoon knowing that he had killed a man for a VCR was too much to accept. Stupid--both of them are just plain stupid and I thank God over and over that I have never seen either of them again and I hope I never do. Art, thank you for all you have done for me since our friendship on Facebook. You have answered many of my questions. I never stop praying for the safety of firefighters everywhere and my wish would be that "everyone goes home."
I'm just so happy that you wrote the article. If it had not been for Ed Morris, I would have never known about it. Yes, my heart struggles as the pain always comes back. It always will. But we have to go forward and do what we can for the next wife/family that we know will go through this. I will share with you that I always felt like I had "the world by the tail" when we were together. That's the part of my spirit that never returned. I no longer reach that depth of happiness that I had when he was alive. A part of me is missing. And it's true; A PART OF ME IS MISSING! But what would our lives be like, if we never loved anyone. I totally learned that "the price of love is grief." Art, did you know that I had his body exhumed and his grave is in Galesburg? I believe it was 1998 when I decided to do that. It's so nice because I can keep his grave decorated so easily this way. But he always told me if anything happened not to waste time at the cemetery, because he wouldn't be there--he would be in Heaven. And he really is! And you are right. I am strong enough and always willing to share my testimony if I can help anyone else. I had to print out your article and I have read it and reread it many times. It will always be special to me and I'm so glad you cared enough to write it. I will place it in his memorial book. And thank you very much for being such a great friend to me; for answering my questions when I didn't understand. That "flashover" situation really bothered me and I had to find out what it meant. I will always be grateful that I never took Dennis' love for me for granted.....I will always love him.
Oh, and I wanted to share with you when I took the witness stand to give my victim impact letter, I asked Judge Stewart if it would be ok to put his picture on the stand so these two guys could see who they "decided" to take a chance and kill. He agreed immediately. I will always have upmost respect for Judge Stewart and so many times I have been so grateful that Greg McClintock was the prosecuting attorney. No one could have done what Greg did! Poor guy, I felt so sorry for him as he certainly wasn't getting any sleep throughout all of this. He had everything in his "court." He had witnesses for everything that took place, especially on the morning of March 6th. I have the picture (Dennis standing beside the fire truck) sitting beside my desktop and it is comforting.
I will finish by making two points:
Rarely have I seen or felt the impact of something that I have written. Yes; I have had comments made that debate my sanity, my subject matter or the position that I might take on certain issues. I have found it easy to write articles that will arouse someone else’s opinion.
But, to touch someone at an emotional level and to help unravel lingering, unanswered questions and the gratitude expressed by the reader reminds me of how powerful a blog can be and that it should never be discounted, even when we get no response at all. We should be both grateful and humble that some take the time to read what we write.
Religion and the strength of someone’s faith can cause discomfort in those who aren’t exactly “practicing” members; someone who practices the teachings from the Bible and attends their church regularly.
I consider myself more of an “associate” member, in terms of my religious involvement. I believe in God, but I go about it just as my dad did…quietly. And I have no opinion on a person’s religious beliefs or the lack thereof. One of the things that I loved about my brother-in-law, Reverend George Neel, is that he never challenged me in matters of faith. He had no problem in being with a group of us and discussing everything BUT religion. He didn’t judge and he didn’t measure people by the strength of religious faith.
I deeply admire and respect Judy Olson’s tremendous strength and resilience after such a tragic, life-changing event. I am grateful that she shared so much of her story with me. I am honored that she considers me a friend and I am very proud that she includes an article that I write with other memories of her late husband.
The opinions and views expressed are those of the article’s author, Art Goodrich, who also writes as ChiefReason. They do not reflect the opinions and views of www.fireengineering.com, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. All articles by the author are protected by copyright under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella and cannot be reproduced in any form without expressed permission.