Fishing derby honors fallen Marine
By Ann Piccininni | Daily Herald Correspondent
Published: 8/10/2008 12:01 AM

Balanced atop a rock on the shoreline of Wheaton's Herrick Lake Saturday morning, 12-year-old Danielle Bluder proclaimed angling victory.

"I caught two fish," she yelled to her father, Kurt, a Downers Grove police officer, who approached carrying his own rod and reel. "I caught a catfish and a bluegill."

The Bluders were among about 150 anglers casting lines into the lake as part of a fishing event for military, police and fire personnel and their families and friends.

The collective trip to the fishing hole was presented by Sgt. Tommy's Kids, a nonprofit organization that was formed last year in honor of the late Marine Sgt. Thomas Gilbert, who was killed in Iraq in 2006.

"From the time he was 3, he started to fish with my grandfather at this lake," said Gilbert's sister, Tammy DeStefano. "Tom hunted and fished all his life."

DeStefano said her brother was killed in Al Anbar Province when the truck he was riding in was hit with an improvised explosive device on Oct. 25, 2006. He was 24.

In his memory, his family and friends established the Sgt. Thomas M. Gilbert Memorial Foundation, otherwise known as Sgt. Tommy's Kids.

"Within hours after we got the news, we knew we wanted to do something," DeStefano said.

The annual fishing day, marking its second year, offers free rods and reels, a casting clinic and craft projects to participants. DeStefano said the day is financed by a series of fundraising events held throughout the year.

"It's just a fun thing, to get the kids outside. It's all catch and release," she said.

Matt Zofchak, who lives near Flint, Mich., brought his twin 6-year-old sons, Nick and Alex, down for the day's events. Zofchak served in the Marines with Gilbert.

"He was the best man at my wedding. He was the person that kept the peace, but we always had a good time. He would have given the shirt off his back for any one of his guys," Zofchak said.

Zofchak turned to help Alex untangle his fishing line and separate the sinker from the bobber. He walked his son to the lake's edge, coached him as he cast the line into the water and instructed him to reel it in a few turns.

Zofchak said a family fishing day is a great way to remember and honor Gilbert.

"He'd be all smiles and all happy," he said. "He loved kids. He used to brag about my kids like they were his own."

A few yards away, Rick Gilbert of Downers Grove, Sgt. Gilbert's uncle, helped a small boy bait a hook and cast it into the lake.

He, too, said he remembers how being an outdoorsman was a big part of his nephew's life.

"Fishing, hunting, he was just a great kid all around," he said.