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St. Jude, 2015.

From the Chicago Tribune :: Chicago police Officer David Milligan stood alone, surrounded by the names of dead police officers etched on a memorial wall, as the sun began showing itself Sunday morning over the Gold Star Memorial Park.

Mementos to honor the fallen had been placed on a small cement ledge under the names. A broken candle. A photo of Michael Gordon, killed in East Garfield Park when a drunken driver slammed into his squad car. A small rusted button for Donald Marquez, killed serving a warrant in Logan Square.

Milligan walked up to the carved name of Gary M. Gradle, placed a piece of paper on the slate and rubbed a pencil across, pulling up the name through the dark lead. Gradle was shot in 1991 and recovered and died of a heart attack on the job five years later.

Milligan has other pencil rubbings at home that he has collected over the years to remember other officers. The St. Jude Memorial March, held annually at the Gold Star Families Memorial and Park in the shadow of Soldier Field, seeks to honor officers who have died in the line of duty.

Milligan, who works as a field training officer assigned to the West Side’s Austin District, has been to more than 30 of these memorials in his 38-year career. He still has a small plaque from his first march in 1977, an image of hands in prayer.

“The officer was a hero,” Milligan said, “and the public should know that.”

The parade is open to the public but held out of view of the city, hidden by the football stadium, in a small remote park. Its intimacy adds to the solemnity of the event, many say.

Describing the importance of a few moments alone at the memorial is a struggle for Milligan.

Cops get it. And their families get it. But it’s not something he can easily convey to someone not tied to law enforcement.

Milligan, wearing a spring coat and cap, left with the paper in his hands to get into the rest of his dress uniform and meet up with other officers from his district.

As more officers arrived for the march, many of their families set out lawn chairs and pushed strollers onto the parkway so their children could observe their parents.

James McGhee, 79, sat in a folding camping chair with a newspaper and waited for the memorial to begin. His daughter and son-in-law were among those marching.

“I came here to honor police officers. … I commend them for the great job they’re doing,” McGhee said. “You know, we got some knuckleheads but by and large they do a heck of a good job, and I honor that.”

His daughter Carol almost happened into the job — she’s a trained engineer who was having a hard time finding work when she passed a recruiting booth at a job expo.

One of the recruiters asked if she had ever considered becoming a police officer. Not until that moment — about 10 years ago, McGhee said.

“The rest, as they say, is history,” McGhee said.

The event is as much a reunion and chance to visit with old friends as anything, and officers frequently happen onto people whose careers have crossed paths with their own.

A common greeting: “Hey, brother!” shouted with the tone of surprise, punctuated the air.

The march began traditionally with bagpipes and drums, a brisk pace set by the thump-thump-thump of a drum that echoed off the stadium to the west.

Toward the front of the parade was a small group of people carrying yellow roses — they were the Gold Star Families that lost relatives in the line of duty.

And as each group of officers passed — separated into districts or units of assignment — the commanding officer shouted “eyes left,” and the flag was lowered parallel to the ground in presentation to Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and a group of subordinates nearby.

“Look, Daddy’s right there,” Rosario Ramirez said of her husband, Victor, to her four as the Grand Crossing District officers passed. “Did you see him? With the glasses?”

Ramirez’s daughter, Liliana, 8, looked on with glee and pride — she saw him, and she wanted to make sure her brothers saw him too.

Ramirez’s husband’s been on the job for 10 years and her brother, Juan Gomez, is about to finish his time as a probationary police officer. When he does, he, too, is expected to be assigned to the Grand Crossing District, she said.

“I want them to see what their father does,” Ramirez said of her children. “To see that he’s a good role model for them.”

It’s the family’s second time at the march, though Liliana doesn’t remember the first.

“You were little,” Ramirez said to her daughter.

The family grouped around the stroller, and Ramirez entertained a younger child while the march continued. Troopers from the Illinois State Police and officers from the Cook County sheriff’s office also marched.

Oak Park — a smaller department that had a village police officer shot hours before the parade — also sent officers. The officer is expected to survive, according to officials.

The march dissipated after it passed the viewing stand and crowds along the parkway. Officers who marched scooped their kids off the ground for hugs and kisses.

Small groups of officers gathered for pictures, traded hugs and handshakes, and parted ways.


Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed.


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