Eileen Coglianese was a mom with two kids in grade school when her husband Edmond, a Chicago Fire Department lieutenant, died while trying to save people from a hotel fire on Super Bowl Sunday in 1986.
She was about to head to her sister’s house to watch the game when her doorbell rang. She saw a man standing outside with a fire department insignia on his shirt. Realizing he was a chaplain, she knew something was wrong.
“As soon as he said what his name was, I said, ‘You’re not here for that, are you?’ ” she later recalled. “And he was.”
Her husband died during the rescue efforts at the Mark Twain Hotel at Clark and Division streets. He led two people down ladders but, when he re-entered the building to look for more people still inside, was overcome by smoke.
As Mrs. Coglianese comforted her children, grappled with grief and sorted out funeral details, the family felt as if everybody else was celebrating the Bears’ Super Bowl victory and that reports of his death seemed like just a footnote in the news.
She went on, in 1991, to help establish the Chicago Fire Department Gold Badge Society, which assists families of firefighters and paramedics who’ve died in the line of duty.
Mrs. Coglianese, 72, who was president of the volunteer group for more than a decade, died Thursday at her Tinley Park home of complications from surgery, according to her daughter Allyson.
The society was the nation’s first formal support group for families of fallen firefighters and paramedics, according to the Rev. Tom Mulcrone, a former Chicago Fire Department chaplain who was also among the founders.
Mrs. Coglianese “wanted to help others and make sure they didn’t go through what we did,” according to her daughter.
“As soon as there would be a line-of-duty death, we would go to the E.R.,” said Allyson Coglianese, who is vice president of the society.
Stunned survivors would turn to Mrs. Coglianese and ask, “How are we going to survive?”
“She was there pretty much from the moment I heard my husband passed away,” said Susan Johnson, whose husband Capt. Herbert Johnson died fighting a fire in 2012. “She helped me and my children negotiate everything that was about to happen.”
The Chicago Fire Department Gold Badge Society helps families navigate their immediate needs after a loved one’s death, like securing death benefits.
“They had workshops for spouses and children,” said former Chicago fire Commissioner Bob Hoff, who lost his firefighter-dad Thomas Hoff in the line of duty in 1962. “You talked about your families. She ran all that stuff and was so good about it. What she did for the families was something no one else could do because she lived through it. She always knew the right thing to say.”
The society also holds annual golf outings and “Battle of the Badges” fundraisers, with police officers and firefighters squaring off at boxing matches and ballgames to raise scholarship money for the children of fallen firefighters and police officers.
Mrs. Coglianese worked to build a memorial park near McCormick Place for firefighters and paramedics who died in the line of duty.
“What Eileen and her cohorts did was nothing short of spectacular,” Mulcrone said.
Young Eileen grew up in Markham, one of seven kids of Joseph and Marion Coad. Her father was a CTA bus driver. She attended Bremen High School.
Her dad was in a citizen’s band radio club. She met her future husband, a CB fan, when he visited the Coad home. They were married in 1969 and raised their family in Mount Greenwood.
After her husband’s death, she enrolled at St. Xavier University and got a degree in religious studies and was a substitute teacher at Mother McAuley High School.
She enjoyed playing cards, golfing and trips with other firefighter widows to the Riviera Maya region of Mexico.
At family gatherings, she always wanted people to connect with each other — to the point that she once disconnected the satellite dish at her house so relatives and friends would talk to one another rather than watch TV.
Mrs. Coglianese also is survived by her son Matthew; sisters MaryRose Balassone, Geraldine Howe, Kathleen Turek, Bernadette Hughes, Rosella Lichtenstein and two grandchildren.
Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Blake Lamb Funeral Home in Oak Lawn and at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel, 7740 S. Western Ave., followed by her funeral there at 11 a.m. Thursday.