Our community suffered a terrible loss when Forest Park firefighter John Van Petten, died on Jan. 1, 2021. He was only 49 years old. “JVP,” as he was known at the firehouse, was a larger-than-life figure who loved Forest Park. The redhead had a colorful leprechaun costume and wore it as grand marshal of our St. Patrick’s Day Parade for the past five years.

He was also devoted to his fellow firefighters and served one term as union representative for Local 2753. Van Petten was known for cooking stuffed green peppers for the crew and lifting weights in their workout room. 

Fire department members and Forest Park residents are invited to a funeral Mass for Van Petten. It will be held at Old St. Patrick’s Church, 700 W. Adams, Chicago, on Friday, Oct. 8, at 10 a.m.

The church is an appropriate setting because his “Irish twin” Megan recalled her younger brother was “very Irish and very Catholic.” Born 15 months and one day apart, they remained close throughout his lifetime. Van Petten also leaves behind his mother, Mary Ann; his brothers, Tom and Jim; and four children, Bridget, Grace, Margaret and John.

He was born and raised in Villa Park and lived in Brandywine Village Apartments, a townhouse community that featured a pool. He loved swimming and excelled at sports, becoming a star wrestler at Montini High School and playing on the football team. He went on to take courses at the College of DuPage in firefighting and paramedic training.

Van Petten started his firefighting career at the Oakbrook Terrace FD, before joining Forest Park 18 years ago. Mary Ann said JVP saw some terrible things during the course of his career and would remind her to, “Buckle up, Mom,” when she was driving. She had lost her husband, Tom, in a car accident, when Van Petten was 5. As an adult, JVP did his best to help her out, bringing groceries and cooking meals.

He was her “go to” if she needed help and his death has been a huge loss. She described her son as “the most charismatic person I ever met.” He never missed family gatherings and “lit up a room” when he walked in. He was humble and uncomplaining. Perhaps because of the tragedies he saw, Van Petten lived life to the fullest. 

A “hands-on dad,” he was very devoted to his kids. His one regret as a firefighter was that his schedule prevented him from coaching their youth sports teams. He had wanted to purchase property in Forest Park but didn’t because it wouldn’t have been convenient to his children’s school. Van Petten had a giving soul and was naturally helpful, assisting neighbors with their groceries.

He was also a peacemaker, urging family members to “hug it out” when they had differences. He embraced Irish culture and music and was a passionate fan of Notre Dame football, a “character” who dressed up for football and baseball games. As Mary Ann said, “He loved life and had a blast!”

October is “Fire Prevention Month” and a time when we think of the men and women who work to keep us safe from the ravages of fire. Sometimes we forget the personal toll it takes on our fire and police personnel when they respond to tragedies. 

I never had the privilege of meeting John Van Petten or getting to know him. But as a member of the community he served, I would like to say “RIP, JVP.”

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.