Firefighter in Famous Photo Dies at 81

Photo captured firefighter carrying a child's body from a burning school

His was a face that became identified with one of Chicago's deadliest tragedies.

Richard Scheidt, the Chicago firefighter who cradled a lifeless boy in an iconic photograph from the 1958 fire that swept through Our Lady of the Angels School, died Monday.

“Here was a true hero,” said Bill Kugelman, former president of the Chicago firefighters union, who worked on a downtown squad with Scheidt. “Here was a true servant to the city of Chicago, a guy with heart and a guy who really did his job and lived for the fire department.”

Scheidt died following a brief illness Monday in his Oak Lawn home, surrounded by family and friends, said Nancy Coughlin, one of Scheidt’s children.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful man,” Coughlin said. “He was very friendly, he treated anyone with respect and he was very honest.”

Scheidt, 81, was a shy man who was never comfortable with his sadly earned notoriety from a picture that was seen around the world.

Despite his reservations, he understood that the powerful photo, taken by Chicago freelance photographer Steve Lasker, helped strengthen fire codes to make schools and other public buildings safer, Kugelman said.

“Who knows how many kids were saved by the laws changing?” he said.

Kugelman called Scheidt a “fireman’s fireman” whose three older brothers were also firefighters.

“It was in his blood,” he said. “That’s what he lived for.”

On Dec. 1, 1958, fire swept through Our Lady of the Angels School on the West Side, killing 95 people -- 92 children and three nuns.

In the photo, which appeared in the Chicago American and Life magazine, Scheidt is seen carrying the body of John Jajkowski from the school. John was one of 19 dead children Scheidt carried from the school. He was haunted by what he saw that day, Kugelman said.

Coughlin said her father never talked about what he saw that day, or any day he worked as a firefighter.

“That generation of people, they were really just all heroes,” she said. “They just took care of business.”

She said her father had a great sense of humor and loved to work hard, both on the job and at home.

“He just did what he did,” she said. “He had a bunch of kids, dogs, was fixing our bikes. He was just a great dad.”

Scheidt's first wife Nancy died in 1975 after 26 years of marriage. A son also preceded him in death.

He is survived by his wife of 32 years, Frances, nine children, 28 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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