The original plan was for the fire engines, ambulances and squad cars to enter Oglesby with sirens wailing and crowds cheering for Evan Knoblauch, the Oglesby firefighter who was battling terminal cancer.
Friday, the emergency vehicles arrived with lights oscillating but the horns and sirens were still. Families and large groups of onlookers stood smartly at attention for the huge procession of vehicles (91, by one count), but there were no cheers. A few waved to the drivers, some of whom could be seen wiping away tears, while others silently snapped pictures with their phones.
Todd Chipman was among those who gathered onto Route 351 to pay a mostly silent tribute. Chipman had known the Knoblauchs since Evan and sister Morgan had, as children, rung his doorbell and welcomed him to the neighborhood.
“It’s pretty tough, yes sir,” Chipman said of Evan’s passing on Wednesday. “But it’s great what’s taking place. They’re a great family.”
Evan Knoblauch’s death wasn’t unexpected — he’d confided on June 30 to fire chief Ron Popurella that he only had weeks left — but the news came as a body blow to Oglesby firefighters and to those at St. Bede Academy, Evan’s alma mater. Evan had made so many friends at both the department and the school that joint plans quickly were hatched to honor him with a parade and exhibition football game.
After some deliberation, the decision was made to proceed with the program. As players assembled on the Bruins’ field, Popurella announced that though Knoblauch hadn’t officially earned his certification, state fire marshal Matt Perez waived the final requirements and personally signed Knoblauch’s certification.
“We were going to present that certification to Evan tonight,” Popurella said, “but God had other plans.”
Popurella then presented the document signed by Perez to Evan’s parents, Jim and Sue, and sister, then called out, “Rest easy, Evan. We’ve got it from here.”
An emotional Sue Knoblauch said it was “wonderful” watching the procession and huge throng of well-wishers come out for the exhibition game.
“I’m so grateful that everyone went out of their way to do this for Evan,” she said.
Evan Knoblauch had been a popular student-athlete at St. Bede when, in his senior year, he was diagnosed with cancer. His plans to attend Illinois State University were shelved while he underwent grueling treatments that at first appeared successful.
But the cancer returned and Jim and Sue Knoblauch shuttled him back and forth to Chicago for debilitating treatments that, in recent months, left Evan in ferocious pain. Evan, however, had been an undersized and overachieving lineman who left it all on the field at St. Bede. While convalescing, he made up his mind to become an Oglesby firefighter and gritted his teeth through certification.
It wasn’t uncommon, Popurella recalled, for Evan to show up for training late at night after returning from treatments in Chicago.
“I tried to get him to go home,” Popurella recalled, “but he wouldn’t.”
That came as no surprise to Oglesby coaches and St. Bede classmates who remembered a tenacious athlete whose determination caught opponents off guard.
Herb Klein is a former Oglesby Little League coach who said Evan, even in his early teens, never complained and showed focus with every pitch.
“He just loved to play,” Klein said. And when younger players joined the team, Evan would seek them out to shake hands and give friendly pointers.
He loved to lead, agreed longtime friend Jacob Dudek, who graduated with Evan from St. Bede in 2017.
“The most humble dude you’d ever meet,” Dudek said. “The strength he had (during his illness) was unreal. Even before then, he was a great guy.
“Nobody’s perfect, but he was damn close.”