People wore red, white and blue clothing, waved American flags, held hands over their hearts and stood at attention as the hearse drove down West Main Street in Belleville on Saturday.
They were honoring Capt. Eleanor “Ellie” Cooke, formerly LeBeau, 29, a U.S. Marine pilot from Belleville who was killed in the crash of a hybrid aircraft in Australia last month.
“We’re here to pay our respects,” said Jackie Caponi, 59, of Millstadt, formerly of Belleville. “We don’t know the family. We don’t know anybody related to her. But it’s the patriotic thing to do.”
Jackie Caponi and her daughter, Brandi Caponi, were standing next to a commercial building that Peggy and Jim Schifferdecker use for storage. Three Corvettes owned by the Schifferdecker family — one red, one white and one blue — were lined up in the parking lot.
The couple’s son, Erik Schifferdecker, had hung 10 large American flags around the building’s awning. He borrowed them from an Eagle Scout project that his brother, Mark Schifferdecker, had completed at Green Mount Cemetery.
“You have to pay respect to those who make the ultimate sacrifice, and these days, I don’t think there’s enough of that (patriotism),” said Erik Schifferdecker, 31.
The funeral procession traveled 7 miles, starting at Cathedral of St. Peter Catholic Church downtown and ending at Mt. Carmel Catholic Cemetery in west Belleville, where Cooke was buried with full military honors.
The route was lined with more than 1,000 American flags, which had been placed Thursday by volunteers with an O’Fallon-based nonprofit organization called The Flagman’s Mission Continues. In some areas, lights flashed from firetrucks and other emergency vehicles.
Cooke and two other Marines died on Aug. 27, when a MV-22B Osprey crashed on Melville Island, north of Darwin, Australia, while transporting troops during a routine training exercise.
Cooke attended Blessed Sacrament Catholic Grade School and Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville before going on to study at Murray State University and joining the Marines in 2018.
“She brought joy, exuberance, and an abundance of love into the world,” according to her obituary with George Renner & Sons Funeral Home.
Several hundred people attended Cooke’s visitation Friday afternoon and evening at Renner. That was followed by a funeral service at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Peter, officiated by Monsignor Jack McEvilly.
The service was live-streamed on the St. Peter YouTube channel. Media wasn’t allowed in the church at the family’s request.
McEvilly alluded to heroic actions taken by Cooke during the Aug. 27 training exercise. This hasn’t been discussed by the U.S. Marine Corps but was mentioned by Australian reporters last month. The U.S. government stated only that the crash was under investigation.
“Normally, no one walks away from this kind of a plane crash, but instead, 20 people on board were saved, and it was because of what Ellie did,” McEvilly said, adding that her selflessness was rooted in her strong family upbringing.
A soloist sang the hymn “No Greater Love,” which includes the lyrics, “There is no greater love, says the Lord, than to lay down your life for a friend.”
One of Ellie Cooke’s brothers and a Marine friend gave eulogies, speaking of her energy, enthusiasm, confidence, faith, hard work, bright smile, love of Christmas and devotion to her husband, Chase Cooke, and other family.
A stand holding Ellie Cooke’s American flag-draped casket stood in front of the sanctuary during the funeral service. At the end, it was rolled out as “The Marines’ Hymn” played over the sound system.
Earlier in the week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker directed Illinois agencies and organizations to fly U.S. and Illinois flags at half-staff from sunrise Thursday to sunset Saturday in honor of Cooke.
Tamara Vowell was standing across the street from Mt. Carmel on Saturday when the hearse turned into the cemetery, driving under a giant American flag hanging from firetruck ladders. She wanted to show support for her physician, Dr. David LeBeau, Cooke’s father.
“(David LeBeau) helps the poor, and he’s just a lovely, lovely person,” said Vowell, 59, of Belleville. “I’m heartbroken for him and his family.”
David and Victoria LeBeau had eight children.
Dozens of people lined the funeral procession route on Saturday, but Vowell and others commented that hundreds more would have shown up if not for rumors perpetuated on Facebook that Cooke’s family didn’t want a crowd due to privacy concerns.
At 6 p.m. Friday and again on Saturday morning, the city of Belleville posted Facebook messages calling Cooke a “true American hero” and encouraging residents to come out and show their respect.
“The City of Belleville expresses their sincere condolences to the LeBeau family and Ellie’s husband, Chase, during this difficult time,” one of the messages stated.
Volunteers are needed to take down flags on Sunday. Those willing to help are asked to arrive at 1 p.m. in the parking lot east of St. Peter. The Flagman’s Mission Continues also accepts donations.