PEORIA, Ill. — Tears fell from Kelsea Sollberger's eyes as the children of Peoria Fire Department Capt. Vernon "Butch" Gudat spoke Monday of their father's sacrifice in the line of duty during a service to honor his memory.
Sollberger, 22, of Peoria, like the Gudats, is the daughter of a fireman. She understands all too well the fear felt by family members of firefighters that their loved ones may not return home when they go off to work.
She also is one of two college students receiving a scholarship this year from the Butch Gudat Fund.
Brother and sister Mike and Michele Gudat began the fund five years ago as a way to create a positive impact from the tragedy of losing their father at a young age.
On Jan. 23, 1983, the elder Gudat was killed when a brick wall inside a burning building in Downtown Peoria collapsed on him. His daughter was in eighth grade, his son a sophomore in high school. Gudat was the last firefighter in Peoria to die while on duty.
The 29th anniversary of that event brought a sizable crowd to his grave in Lutheran Cemetery. Friends and family gathered on muddy grass in the bitter cold to pay tribute and, for the first time since the ritual began, share stories of moments spent with Butch.
They described him as a man who was just as devoted to his job as he was to those who knew him well.
"He used to come home and tell us little stories about the kid he brought out or the kitten he brought out," said Michele Gudat. Each one meant more to him than just performing a task in the name of his job.
The Gudats know their father would be proud that his legacy lives on in what are now 14 scholarship recipients, all of whom are children or grandchildren of career or volunteer firefighters in Peoria, Tazewell or Woodford counties.
"It's an honor to be able to give back and to hear the success stories from those students," said Mike Gudat. "Every little bit counts."
Sollberger and her fellow recipient, Burl Rolett of Peoria Heights, were chosen from a pool of 14 applicants.
"I feel more of a connection to this scholarship," said Sollberger, a special education major at Bradley University, adding that she has always felt a strong bond to her father's fellow firefighters but this award has developed into something more.
"Not just the firefighters are my family, but their children, too," she said.
In addition to the scholarships, the fund also provides grants to Tri-County Area fire departments to assist with the purchase of educational materials, installation of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and other community fire prevention efforts. This year the $750 award recipient is the Logan-Trivoli Fire Protection District.
Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com