GREENFIELD — As a line of men and women filed out from Park Cemetery on Friday afternoon, a group of Greenfield firefighters stood silent, saluting their friend one final time.
Chuck Rutledge, 53, died peacefully in his Greenfield home in the early morning hours on March 5 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Hundreds gathered to mourn the loss Friday afternoon as Rutledge, a married father of two sons who started his career with the Greenfield Fire Department in 1991, was laid to rest.
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In 2010, Rutledge was diagnosed with late-stage non-Hodgkins lymphoma, an especially aggressive form of brain cancer. Despite doctors’ warnings the disease could claim him in as little as three months, he fought valiantly for the next six years, even after being diagnosed with another form of cancer in 2012, before succumbing to the disease.
In October, the cancer returned, and in mid February, Rutledge entered hospice care.
Up until his last day, Rutledge remained in good spirits, even offering support to those dreading his death, friends said.
In his years with the fire department, Rutledge carved out a reputation as a committed leader, training dozens of new recruits and spearheading the creation of a cadet program that taught Greenfield-Central High School students what it took to become a firefighter, inspiring several to pursue the field as a career.
Though his medical issues forced Rutledge to step down from his duties as a deputy fire chief in 2010, he continued to teach cadets part time, never giving up on what he knew to be an invaluable program.
Josh Jester, son of Greenfield Police Chief John Jester, was Rutledge’s first recruit to the cadet program in 2008.
Jester, who now works for the Mishawaka Fire Department in northern Indiana, said Rutledge’s leadership solidified his decision to pursue firefighting as a career.
“Just seeing the passion he had for the job, that made me realize this is what I want to do,” Jester said.
It’s been a difficult time for the firefighting community. The news of Rutledge’s death came a day after Kyle Gulley, a 20-year-old intern with the Sugar Creek Township Fire Department, was struck and killed in a car crash on March 3.
But both departments have rallied support for one another, said Greenfield Fire Chief James Roberts.
In the weeks that preceded Rutledge’s death, dozens of firefighters filed in and out of his home, offering support and bidding farewell to their friend.
At a visitation for Rutledge held Thursday at Trinity Park United Methodist Church, firefighters and community members swapped stories about the man who was both mentor and friend.
Despite a by-the-book style of leadership, Rutledge was never too rigid to have some fun in the firehouse, said Jason Davis, an EMT with the Greenfield Fire Department.
On a slow night at the station several years ago, Rutledge decided to have some fun by filling a fellow firefighter’s extra pair of boots up with water, then sticking them outside to freeze overnight, Davis recalled with a laugh.
But whenever the alarm rang and it was time to suit up, Rutledge inspired confidence in the group he oversaw, said Kenny Dowden, an EMT with the department.
Dowden said he and the other firefighters always knew Rutledge, who operated the pumps that control the flow of water to a fire engine’s hoses, would never make a mistake when it mattered most.
“He just gave you this huge boost of confidence,” said Dowden, who started working at the department in 1996. “It didn’t matter what you were going into; if you had Chuck there, you knew it was going to be OK.”
Even when Rutledge’s condition forced him to step down from his duties as an active firefighter and take an early retirement, the fire department remained a constant presence in his life, said Dowden, one of Rutledge’s closest friends.
In the years that followed Rutledge’s grim prognosis, the community rallied around the firefighter, along with his wife, Janice, and two sons, Craig and Todd.
When an intensive chemotherapy program landed Rutledge in the hospital in the summer of 2010, his friends from the fire department planned an event that raised more than $17,000 to help the family keep up with medical expenses.
The event culminated with a motorcycle ride stretching miles long that went past Hancock Regional Hospital, where an emotional Rutledge — surprised and overwhelmed by the display — sat out front in a wheelchair, watching the procession in his honor go by.
And last fall, members from the Greenfield Rotary Club and the Greenfield Fire Department raised another $6,000 for a leg brace that helped Rutledge manage his limp, a byproduct of his brain tumor.
While several of Rutledge’s fellow firefighters filled in to keep the cadet program running in Rutledge’s absence, the program’s leader never stayed away for long — or let up on those he knew could have a career in the fire service.
When Rutledge ran his cadets through drills, he always made sure no one was simply going through the motions, Jester said.
Even when teaching simple procedures that can sometimes seem mundane, like lacing up boots or putting on protective gear, Rutledge took care to make sure the cadets were actively engaged — a testament to his commitment to the career, Jester said.
“He knew how important those things are,” Jester said. “Now every time I put my gear on, I’m thinking about what he taught me.”