BELVIDERE, Ill. — Thomas Raycheck, 63, died cold and alone in a suburban trailer park last week, but that's not where his story would end.
The retired Chicago firefighter was found in dead on Nov. 24 by the property manager of Greenview Estates in the suburb of Rockford. Raycheck moved into the mobile home community in August 2006.
Kelly Goodmonson had only been on the job for six months when one of the residents called her concerned that Raycheck hadn't been seen. She suspected the worst when she spotted the fireman's wheelchair and cane covered in snow outside of his trailer.
"He didn't walk very well," said Goodmonson, who had befriended Raycheck in her short time at the office.
Goodmonson entered the home with the coroner and found Raycheck dead. He was pronounced dead at the scene of natural causes. His voicemail box was full, Goodmonson said.
"There was no heat in his home, and it was very cold in the house," said Goodmonson, adding that she knows Raycheck was scheduled for some sort of surgery before he died.
Goodmonson had no record of any friends or family for Raycheck. While in his home she recognized a picture he had shown her before. The picture was of Raycheck saving a child from a burning building on the North Side.
He had earlier told her that he was reprimanded for not wearing the proper gear during the rescue. Still, he was proud of the picture and his career with the Chicago Fire Department. Raycheck even encouraged Goodmonson's son to pursue a career as a fireman.
"He was such a nice man, always smiling," she said.
Goodmonson snapped a picture of the newspaper photograph that hung in Raycheck's trailer. She then posted it on Facebook along with a brief narrative about the man she knew only briefly.
She meant to only share the story only with her immediate friends but was encouraged to make the post public as others wanted to help. This quickly became a firestorm as Goodmonson's original post was shared some 2,333 times in a little more than 24 hours.
"It just started as, 'Hey, I just want this person to be remembered,'" she said, adding that firemen from throughout the area shared her post and offered to help.
Eventually, the Rev. Thomas Mulchrone was alerted to Raycheck's death from the post. The chaplain for the Chicago Fire Department reached out to Belvidere officials who later tracked down a some of Raycheck's family.
"Tom was a good guy," said Mulchrone, adding that he's offered to pay for funeral expenses as well as provide the ceremonial services that includes an honor guard and bagpipes.
"We will pay for everything and give him a proper funeral," he said.
Other details of Raycheck's life began to emerge. One post on Goodmonson's Facebook page included a link to a story in the Chicago Tribune from 1993.
The story highlights Raycheck's efforts to bring Christmas gifts to 150 disabled children at schools in Lakeview and Uptown. He dressed up as Santa, solicited friends and co-workers to wear Christmas costumes too and bought all the gifts with childrens' individual abilities and interests in mind, according to the article.
The story also offered a glimpse into Raycheck's background as well, stating he was made a ward of the state when he was a child. His parents, Raycheck then said, weren't able to care for him. So he was sent to a series of residential foster-care facilities from when he was in first grade until he was in high school.
"I can understand what it's like (to be a child in need of help) more than people with a normal upbringing," Raycheck told the Tribune reporter, adding that he was living in Lincoln Square at the time.
Raycheck served in the Air Force from March 1971- Sept. 1975. He worked in tool-and-die shop prior to entering fire department and retired in Nov. 2001, according to fire department records.
He was also a great firehouse cook — but don't dare to criticize his meals, said Mulchrone, adding that Raycheck ended his career operating the command van stationed at O'Hare International Airport.
"He did a lot of good things. He was a good fireman," Mulchrone said.
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