WOODSTOCK – They walked past Engine 32 and into the church where Michael Wurtz, in his final months, reconnected to his faith.
More than 360 uniformed firefighters from departments as far away as the Champaign area filtered into Woodstock Assembly of God, saluting the open casket of Wurtz one-by-one during a fire department walk-through. The departments came together with Wurtz' friends and family to lay to rest the 47-year-old firefighter, who died Friday of cancer.
Those who spoke before and during the ceremony remembered a fearless firefighter who lived to serve – for his family, his friends and his community. They talked of his adventurous spirit, his exhaustive work ethic, the way everyone who met him seemed to feel a special connection. They remembered that smirk, which somehow toed the line between business-like and light-hearted.
They tried to put into words what Wurtz meant to the world.
"We seem larger than life," Woodstock Fire Chief Ralph Webster said during the ceremony. "But quite honestly, that's not what makes us so special. That's not what made Mike special. It's the little things he did to serve others."
Giving the service's eulogy, Pastor Roger Willis harkened back to conversations he'd had with Wurtz over the last four and a half months, since the two met. He explained several words that Wurtz's memory called to mind: adventure, selfless, honor.
He said his next sermon would be called "Lessons from 1325 Dean Street," the address of the nearby Woodstock Fire/Rescue District Station 2. Being around Wurtz firsthand showed him the honor the department felt Wurtz was due.
"If we treat one another how you all treat one another, it's going to go a long, long way," Willis said.
Willis added a fourth word: rest. He talked about the peaceful nature of a visit he'd had with Wurtz in January. The two discussed faith, and Wurtz opened up about a spiritual road made rocky by his dad's death at a young age.
"I was hoping this visit would go in this direction," Willis remembered Wurtz saying.
Firefighters lifted the American flag from its resting spot on Wurtz's casket, folded it and presented it to Wurtz's wife. They gave his helmet and badge to the family. Each of his children was presented an honorary badge from the local firefighters union.
"We're having his service, but we're serving her today," Webster said of Wurtz's wife. "Her and her family."
To the blare of bagpipes and drums, service men carried the casket out the church, past rows of firefighters frozen in salute. The body was raised onto Engine 32, where it would soon fall into a procession that traveled past each of the three Woodstock fire stations.
First, the rows of firefighters were ordered out of their salute. Several finally wiped the tears from their eyes.