Scores of firefighters and motorcyclists gathered around St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church in Wheaton yesterday as the body of 13-year-old Matthew “Mattie” Stepanek was lifted down off a firetruck and taken inside for viewing and farewell.
“This is one of his wishes — to ride on a firetruck,” said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.
“Mattie adored fire engines and motorcycles. He’d be smiling when we all rolled in today,” said Colin Pearl, 56, of Lothian, Md., a leader of the local Harley-Davidson chapter.
More firefighters, police officers and motorcyclists will gather today at the church and go to Gate of Heaven Cemetery for the funeral of Mattie, whose lifelong fight against muscular dystrophy brought him fame for his poetry and millions of dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Last year, Mattie loaned his presence to the annual firefighters’ campaign, which produced $17 million for the association, and to Harley-Davidson chapters, which produced $7.5 million, said Bob Mackle, information officer at the association.
At the viewing was Ron Siarnicki, who retired as Prince George’s County fire chief in 2001. Mattie had written a poem about the chief and read it at the retirement ceremony.
“It’s hanging on my office wall now,” Mr. Siarnicki said.
Comedian Jerry Lewis, who had Mattie with him for three of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethons, will be unable to attend the funeral because of ill health. But “Entertainment Tonight” anchor Jann Carl and teen singer Billy Gilman, who put out an album based on Mattie’s “Heartsongs” poems, will be there to speak and sing.
Mattie’s family has been virtually extinguished by the disease. His wheelchair-bound mother, Jeni, 44, survives. Two brothers and a sister died at a young age from the disease.
Mattie was born July 17, 1990. He was diagnosed with a mutation of the disease. Doctors didn’t expect him to live more than one day.
But he defied the doctors, living 13 years and writing five books of poetry.
Although Mattie began writing poetry when he was 3, his work wasn’t published until Peter Barnes of VSP Publishers in Virginia read the poems.
VSP printed 200 copies of “Heartsongs” for friends. But publicity about the book and its author attracted wide interest.
More than 500,000 copies were printed and sold, and one book hit the top of the New York Times book list.
The publishing success seemed like medicine for Mattie. He rallied and appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and wrote four more books, one of which contained a forward from former President Jimmy Carter.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.