Columnist John Rice poses with author and firefighter Matt Drew at the book release party for Drew's new book, "Shadows of Chicago."

Nine years ago, a young Chicago firefighter named Matt Drew was doing research for a book about my great-grandfather, Chicago Fire Marshal James Horan [1859-1910]. When he asked for my help, I gladly let him copy my materials. Last week, Matt invited me to his book signing at an Irish pub in the south suburbs. His book, “Shadows of Chicago” is hot off the presses.

Matt is a rare individual who can write and fight fires. He earned a Master’s Degree in Writing from De Paul University and has taught English Composition at an array of high schools and colleges. He also teaches firefighting tactics at the University of Illinois and serves on the Chicago Fire Department Hazardous Materials squad. He juggles these jobs, while raising three young children with his wife Melissa. However, the fact that Matt can walk, let alone work, is a major miracle.

Growing up in an Irish family, Matt decided early-on to become a fireman. He joined the department in 2002 and was assigned to an engine company in the Woodlawn neighborhood. It was a busy firehouse, as was his next assignment at Engine 63 in the Kenwood neighborhood.

On Feb. 11, 2010, Matt and his comrades were fighting an arson fire. Matt was chopping away at one of the wooden walls, when his axe unexpectedly struck concrete. He felt a sharp pain in his back but had no idea how badly he was injured. His shattered disc had severed his spinal cord, causing Cauda Equina Syndrome.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Matt was told he would never walk again. He stunned neurologists by making a slow recovery from the injury. He said it was like being a baby again, taking his first steps with a walker. Thanks to daily physical therapy, which he still undergoes, Matt advanced to walking with a cane. He recently played in a charity softball game and is, “ninety-five percent back to how I was before.”

As crippling as the injury was, Matt suffered another cruel setback, when all of his research materials were wiped out by a basement flood. He painstakingly replaced them.

However, on December 10, 2010, he suddenly lost his stomach for the book project. A hundred years to the date that Horan and twenty of his men were killed by a collapsing wall in the stockyards, two Chicago firefighters were buried in the rubble of a shuttered plant. Firefighters in dress uniform left the centennial ceremony at the stockyard memorial and hurried to the scene. Matt went, too, though he was too hobbled to help. One of his best friends, Ed Stringer, was killed.

After deciding to donate a portion of the book’s proceeds to the department’s fund for widows and orphans, Matt moved forward with the project. A publisher was impressed with Matt’s solidly-written account of Horan’s life but thought the book needed more characters. Matt added two of “Big Jim’s” lifelong friends, White Sox founder Charles Comiskey and Chicago Mayor Fred Busse.

Matt not only painted rich portraits of three larger-than-life men, he found details about my great-grandfather’s life that I had been dying to know. “Shadows of Chicago” is written with passion and has appeal for firefighting buffs, White Sox fans and aficionados of Chicago’s corrupt politics. There are plans for Matt to come to Centuries & Sleuths to sign copies of the book. It will be an opportunity to meet a remarkable man, purchase an entertaining slice of Chicago history and help out families like the Stringers.

This article was updated to correc tthe spelling of firefighter Ed Stringer’s name.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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