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CHAMPAIGN — Last April, Marita Booker and her family gazed upon three granite tablets in Dodds Park bearing many names upon them, including those of her late son, Ross, and fallen Champaign police Officer Chris Oberheim.
“It was a wake-up call,” Booker said. “Two preventable deaths; two people that were not done living; two families that were never to be the same.”
At the same time, as organizers read out the accomplishments and contributions of five Champaign County workers who died on the job, Booker said she felt a sense of pride for her son.
“It meant that our county does care — it also showed us that International Workers Memorial Day is not highlighted enough. I had never heard of it until our family was impacted,” she said.
The Champaign County Workers Memorial recognizes men and women who died carrying out their profession — farmers, tradesmen, police, hotel clerks, educators alike. This month, organizers are searching for new names to include from the previous year or before.
“It’s important that these folks are recognized and not forgotten,” said Brad Diel, memorial organizer and lieutenant for the Champaign Fire Department. “They need to be remembered by other people in the community that are workers and working for the betterment of the community and the betterment of their families.”
April 28 is International Workers Memorial Day, recognizing workers who died on the job. Traditionally, the day focuses on those who died of workplace injuries and accidents, or medical issues that stemmed from working conditions.
Local organizers have expanded the Champaign memorial to include anyone who died carrying out job-related demands to support themselves or their loved ones.
This year, the name “Kristian Philpotts” will be etched into the tablet. Philpotts, a Lyft driver and veterinary medicine student, was murdered last year while driving for the rideshare company.
Last April, five names were added: Oberheim; tow-truck driver and volunteer firefighter Ross Booker; Dr. Howard Elementary teacher Paula Dowling; Kraft employee Jeffrey Croix, who died in 1990; and bus driver Arthur Revell, who died in 1974.
The memorial was dedicated in 2002 by the AFL-CIO of Champaign County and the East Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council. Both labor organizations hold the yearly ceremony and provide upkeep for the memorial, located at 1501 N. Mattis Ave., C.
For those who wish to share the name of a Champaign County worker who died on the job, Diel can be contacted through email at email@example.com or called at (217) 841-2822. The final names will be read, and their lives described, at 5 p.m. April 28.
Diel said organizers plan to collect names through the end of March. Engraving typically takes place a week before the ceremony, he said, and organizers try to research each person and the circumstances of their passing.
“Especially if it’s something that happened years ago, we may have to do some background checking and find some history, which is sometimes difficult,” Diel said.
Booker had her own advice for families who attend: “Be ready to be touched, and be proud of your loved one. Remember that their life was taken doing something that they cared about; I don’t think that’s highlighted enough.”
Ross Booker was killed in March 2022 after he was struck by a car while cleaning up debris from an accident. He was a tow-truck operator, volunteer firefighter and capable woodworker and handyman. Tributes poured out from the community after his death, including a procession of 70 emergency vehicles and tow trucks.
“The more information you share, the more touching that ceremony is going to be. You know about your loved one — but nobody else may,” she said.