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Shelby Township Remembers Fire Chief Gene Shepherd

The Shelby Township Fire Department remembers Fire Chief Gene Shepherd, who died Monday at the age of 56.

It was a somber Tuesday at as news of the night before began to sink in.

"Everybody seems to be OK," Battalion Chief Douglas Miller said. "It was one of those inevitable things. It's the difference between expected and unexpected."

A little more than a year after Shepherd was named Shelby Township Fire Chief in 2009, he was diagnosed with clear-cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.

Shepherd underwent a cadaver bone transplant, numerous rounds of radiation and chemotherapy before doctors told him in December 2011, that the cancer had spread, and there was nothing left to do, other than try alternative drug treatments. 

During an , Shepherd had said he remained optimistic and open to trying new treatments. However, he had begun accepting certain realities and had prepared himself and his family.

"It gets to be a reality after a while,” said Shepherd as he tried hard to fight back tears. “They know there is no magic pill and you prepare. You get things ready, and you do what you have to do.”

In fact, Miller said Shepherd had prepared for the his funeral and left a detailed set of instructions for the department to follow.

Shepherd's Administrative Secretary Assistant Janet Aiuto said she was glad she had a chance to tell her former boss how much strength and courage he taught his staff.

"In my opinion he showed us how to die," said Aiuto as tears rolled down her cheek. "I told him that I admired him that he dealt with this so well. He planned. He didn’t have his head in the sand. He planned but he still had hope that there would be a cure."

Miller said there were days that Shepherd dragged himself to work, despite just undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment, because he had a mission to accomplish.

"He had lost a lot of strength in his left arm but he was really motivated. I think he had some projects that he wanted to finish up here," said Miller. "He had good days and bad days. But up until about two weeks ago it finally hit him."

Several weeks ago, Shepherd was admitted to a local hospital and released to hospice care at his Sterling Heights home. He died with his family nearby, according to Miller.

Shepherd, who was 56, planned on retiring in December 2012, after 25 years of firefighting under his belt.

Utica Fire Chief Kevin Wilseck, who worked at Shelby Township when Shepherd was hired, said Tuesday, “Gene was a all around good guy. He cared about everyone."

Wilseck and Chesterfield Township Fire Chief Doug Charbonneau, who are just two of several members of the Macomb County Chief’s Association's Firefighter Funeral Committee, attended a meeting to plan the details of Shepherd's funeral.

The fire chiefs said they want to make sure that the proper guidelines are followed to give Shepherd an honorable burial, according to the firefighter's guidelines.

Several years ago, the committee was formed to plan every detail of a fallen firefighter's funeral, whether active or retired, to help the department and families simplify the planning process when tragedies strike. 

Miller said there will be a uniformed firefighter guarding Shepherd's casket at all times during visitations at Wujek Calcaterra Funeral Home on Saturday and Sunday. Members of the Shelby Fire Department have volunteered for shifts to cover the 8-hour visitations so that Shepherd's body is never left unprotected.

During the funeral, neighboring fire departments have volunteered to cover Shelby Township for free so that members of the department can attend the chief's funeral. A draped fire engine that Shepherd worked hard to secure for the department will sit outside the funeral home.

Shepherd's Legacy Lives On

“His leadership could be his legacy because he just seemed to be a natural at it," said Miller.

The common thread among Shepherd's team was that he will forever be remembered for outstanding leadership and communication skills.

"He seemed to have an ability to be a leader, but yet have a good rapport with the guys at the same time," said Aiuto.

Aiuto added that Shepherd was a family man. He always spoke of his own and often asked the team about theirs.

Firefighter Medic Terry Elsey said that he recently lost his father to cancer and Shepherd often inquired and comforted him. For Elsey, the news of Shepherd's death was like losing a second family member.

Firefighters said Shepherd had a gift for communication. He was always very honest but not harsh. And he always had an open-door policy.

"His ability to communicate I think was his best asset," said Miller. "He was straightforward and to the point but he loved this fire department. That’s what drove him to keep coming to work because he really loved what he was doing."

Lt. Medic John McCoy, who was a close friend to Shepherd, said he always had the department's best interest at heart.

"I’ll miss the friendship. Even though he had a job to do as the chief and I’m the union president, we both had a common goal. We wanted this place to succeed and be a great place to work," said McCoy.

Several weeks ago, the Shelby Township Board of Trustees agreed to

Leave your condolences for the department and family or share your favorite story about Chief Shepherd in the comment section below.

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