Firefighters remember fallen comrade

Tribune reporter

Hundreds of Chicago firefighters gathered under a brilliant blue sky Wednesday to honor their second colleague to die in the line of duty in recent weeks — an 18-year veteran who joined the force at middle age and became a beloved father figure.

Whether shuttling his colleagues to a blaze or his three daughters as they moved about the country, those who knew him best say Walter Patmon Jr. devoted his life to what he loved most: family and firefighting.

He spoke to his daughters often of his pride in their accomplishments, offering advice for the future. And despite having to wait nearly a decade after he took the Chicago firefighter's exam to join the department, he did so eagerly at 43 — about twice the age of most recruits.

"He kept a smile no matter what happened," said Lt. Evan Person. "He wanted to be successful. He wanted to do well, and he wanted to prove to everybody that he could still do it."

Patmon, 61, died of a heart attack Nov. 11 not long after returning to his Beverly neighborhood station after helping out at a small kitchen fire.

The sunny morning Wednesday was infused with sorrow and decorum as Patmon's colleagues, wearing navy blue dress uniforms, raised their white-gloved hands in salute as a fire engine bearing his body arrived at the Apostolic Church of God on the South Side.

Hanging over the proceedings as well was the death earlier this month of Capt. Herbert "Herbie" Johnson, a 32-year veteran who perished after being caught in a possible flashover burst of flames while fighting an extra-alarm fire.

Though the circumstances were different, the firefighters on Wednesday still carried the weight of having to bury two colleagues in the same month.

"Walter was at the services for (Johnson), as were thousands of other firefighters," Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago noted. "And that's what we do. We pay our respects. We pay our respects for our fallen. And we carry on with the job we love."

Hoisting Patmon's flag-draped casket, the firefighter pallbearers slowly marched toward the front of the church to the sound of bagpipes, past Patmon's widow, Diane, and family members who bowed their heads and wiped tears from their cheeks.

Inside the cavernous church, friends and family lined up beside Patmon's casket, flanked by three firefighters and surrounded by bright yellow, purple and red flowers and large family photo collages.

One by one, mourners stooped over Patmon's body, clad in a navy blue dress uniform. Some bent their heads, while others rested their hands on his coffin.

Colleagues reminisced about the firefighter they knew as a diligent and good-natured force in the firehouse.

Lt. Robert Eiland recalled Patmon as a team player who drove a firetruck and worked on the roof team, climbing to the top of burning buildings and venting roofs for the firefighters working inside.

"It's dangerous, very dangerous," Eiland said. "He was dependable."

Patmon also was remembered as funny and passionate about cooking, sports and movies. Mourners at times erupted in laughter as Patmon's friends and family shared stories about his life

Known as "Walkie" and "Bubble" for his portly physique and great sense of humor, Patmon also made a name for himself perfecting a barbecue seasoning mix dubbed the "bub rub."

"Cooking, man, did we have some fun," said Joe Anderson, a friend since childhood. He would "come in your kitchen and look at your stove and say, 'You know what? I think you need to put a little more onion in that.' But that's how he was. He was always trying to perfect stuff."

Anderson, who was part of Patmon's "best buddies," a group of men who have known each other since attending Oglesby Elementary School, told the church that he was shocked to hear of his friend's death.

"Time stopped for me because this is my guy," Anderson said. "Then I came to myself and said thank God for the 48 years and the thousand memories that I have of this guy. All of the silly stuff we done and all of the great trips we've had and the camaraderie we have with all of our friends."

Patmon's three daughters — Windy, Kirby and Kirwin — spoke of their father's constant support, including many long road trips and conversations.

"In our eyes he was an extraordinary man who wore many hats," one daughter said. "He was a five-star chef, the co-pilot on long-distance drives, the comic relief, our No. 1 fan, a motivational speaker and an animated storyteller. ... We will always see his smile, hear his laugh, share his stories, feel his strength and never forget him."

As the ceremony ended, firefighters tolled bells in a traditional send-off before draping the coffin with the Chicago flag.

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