Thousands pay tribute to our fallen correctional brother

Correctional officers gather to mourn. (Photos by David Pierini)
Correctional officers gather to mourn. (Photos by David Pierini)

Helicopters flew overhead and bagpipes played mournfully as our fallen Stillwater correctional brother was laid to rest with full honors Thursday.

More than 3,500 correctional and peace officers from around the nation packed North Heights Lutheran Church to honor correctional officer Joseph Gomm and his family. Gomm was killed by an inmate on July 18, the first correctional officer in Minnesota to die in the line of duty.

Correctional and peace officers came from across the state and nation. (Photos by David Pierini)
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So many people came out to honor him, the mourners spilled into the church’s overflow areas and even into the parking lot. The procession from the church to Roselawn Cemetery stretched nearly nine miles.

Adults and children lined the route in front of homes, strip malls, churches and schools. They waved American flags and homemade signs. Many saluted or stood with their hands over their hearts.

As the lengthy funeral procession passed, firefighters and police from several departments who were helping block the road stood at attention. So did MnDOT workers who barricaded exits to keep the road clear.

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Gomm’s funeral service was filled with mentions of his sense of humor, his faith and his integrity.

“I can assure you, from the very bottom of my heart, Joe will never be forgotten,” said the Rev. Martin Shanahan, the chaplain from Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, who led the service. “This is the time to celebrate the life of an 

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amazing man.”

The chaplain told Gomm’s family he hoped they could feel the love coming their way from not only Stillwater’s correctional staff, but from everyone gathered at the funeral, and people around the nation.

“Joe personally taught me a great deal, about commitment, about authenticity, about integrity, about love, about faith and yes, even about God,” Shanahan says. He had many talks with Gomm about faith, usually in the hall outside the chapel or the turnkey area, full of Gomm’s “undeniable gestures” and “four-letter words.”

“He said and shared what he felt and what he believed, and he spoke truth in startling ways,” Rev. Shanahan said. “He understood what it meant to hunger and thirst for righteousness. He understood what it meant to be reviled for standing up for what he believed was right. He understood what it means to be a peacemaker.”

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The chaplain described Gomm as a man of immense compassion who cared deeply, “who graced us and graced this earth.” Gomm and some co-workers had rescued two American kestrels at Stillwater. The day he died, Gomm wrote to the Raptor Center where they’d brought the birds. He wanted to pass along information he thought might help the kestrels’ recovery.

On Wednesday, the Raptor Center brought those kestrels to Stillwater prison and released them.

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The chaplain says one of the birds flew in a graceful curve, then landed on the light post overlooking the building where Gomm worked and died, “as if to tell all of us, ‘I am free, I’m’ free.’”

Correctional officer Tom Chronakos said Gomm was taken far too soon. But instead of focusing on that great loss, he asked people to celebrate his dear friend’s great impact on so many people.

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The pair met in Stillwater prison when Chronakos pulled a prank on Gomm.

“I didn’t realize I had just pulled a prank on the master, and he spent the next six months tormenting me,” Chronakos said. Gomm filled his coworker’s locker with packing peanuts and taped his sleeves together, marking the beginning of their friendship.

“Joe touched so many people,” he said. “Even though he’s gone, his memory will live on. Joe, I appreciate your friendship and I will never forget you.”

Correctional officer Shawn Yurick recalled that whenever he asked Gomm for help, Joe would respond, but always end with a single word: Whatever. It took Yurick awhile to figure out that Gomm wasn’t dismissing him.

“I never quite knew whether he was saying ‘yes’ to it or ‘no’ to it,” Yurick said. “Then I came to understand that ‘whatever’ was Joe’s love language, (meaning) whatever you need.”

Gomm’s family was concerned that Gomm – a humble man – wouldn’t want a lot of fuss at his funeral.

“I disagree,” Yurick said. “I think Joe would have said ‘whatever.’  Whatever it would take for you guys to heal … for the community of Stillwater to heal, he would put himself through. Whatever is a lack of limitations. It is forever, it is love.”

Memorials can be sent to the Joseph Gomm Memorial Fund c/o BMO Harris Bank, 1520 - 109th Ave. NE., Blaine, MN 55449.

A correctional officer also created a T-shirt in Gomm’s name, with the date of his End of Watch, to raise money for the family.