John W. Bentel was working nights stocking shelves at a grocery store when he took the test to become a firefighter.
He passed it and joined the River Forest Fire Department in 1978, eventually becoming a lieutenant.
"From the start, he loved being a firefighter," said Lorrie, his wife of 30 years. "It was his dream job — a chance to help people at times when they needed it most."
Mr. Bentel encouraged many young firefighters during his more than three decades with the department.
"He was a mentor to a lot of us guys here, including me," said Bob Nortier, deputy fire chief in the near western suburb. "He made himself available and was very approachable. He'd steer you in the right direction and always tell you like it is."
Mr. Bentel, 58, died of complications related to liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer, on Wednesday, Feb. 20, in Hospice and Palliative Care of Northeastern Illinois in Barrington. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and underwent three surgeries and numerous chemotherapy treatments before retiring in 2011.
"He was the kind of guy that no matter what came his way, he just dealt with it," Nortier said.
Mr. Bentel, a longtime resident of Aurora, was also known for pranks around the fire station.
"He'd take you under his wing one minute and then play you the next," said Kurt Bohlmann, a fellow lieutenant.
Bohlmann once returned to the station after a call and opened his locker, only to be enveloped in a big puff of white powder.
"John had taken a few party poppers, replaced the confetti in them with baking powder and then rigged it so that they'd explode when I opened the door," Bohlmann said. "The guys had a good laugh, but for weeks I had white spots everywhere."
Born in Oak Park, Mr. Bentel was one of four brothers known throughout their childhood neighborhoods in Forest Park and later Broadview as brash yet bighearted.
"They were a rollicking bunch," his wife said with a laugh. "But from the stories I've heard, John was the one always standing up for the little guy. He'd stick his neck out and then wind up getting punched because of it."
Mr. Bentel graduated from Proviso East High School in Maywood in 1973.
He was honored with the Humanitarian Service Award given by the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, made up of more than 550 emergency response and fire departments in Illinois, for his participation in rescue efforts after the tornado that hit Utica in April 2004.
"With this job there's a lot of stress," Bohlmann said. "But no matter how chaotic things got while out on a call, John stayed cool. He was the calm before, during and after a storm."
Mr. Bentel is also survived by a son, John Jr.; two daughters, Faith Bucks and Megan; two brothers, Mark and Matt; and three grandchildren.
Services were held.