Mike Lopez, charismatic Chicago firefighter and artist, dies at 49

By Chicago 8 Min Read

The say-anything manner of Chicago firefighter Mike Lopez left people bobbing in the wake of his personality as he made his mark at various spots around the city.

There was the red bench outside his Bronzeville firehouse where he cut it up with colleagues and passersby. And Section 429, Row 10, at Bears games and the lot where he tailgated. Huddles at St. Cajetan elementary school, where he coached football.

“His unique talent to turn any situation into a laugh riot was unrivaled,” his friend Steve Urbon said.

Mr. Lopez was a curse word virtuoso, storyteller and quipster with little regard for audience — abrasive and endearing, friends said.

“Everyone loved Mike. He was one of those guys you just could not be mad at. He’d always make you smile,” said retired Chicago Fire Department Lt. Bill Smith. “He was like a son to me.”

Mr. Lopez died from complications due to diabetes Oct. 27. He was 49.

He left regular firefighting duties when, in 2021, an infection in his right foot led doctors to amputate several toes, and later, his leg. 

Using a prosthetic, he continued doing what he loved: going to Bears games, bowling, concerts and coaching.

He once proudly hoisted his prosthetic to be used as a beer mug at a party, and on another occasion stationed it atop the bar at McNally’s, an Irish Pub on the South Side. His brother, Mathew Lopez, a sergeant with the Chicago Police Department, grabbed it off the pine for safekeeping. 


A sign outside McNally’s, one of Mike Lopez’s favorite South Side bars, honors him.


Mr. Lopez was a 21-year-old live-music fanatic when he took the exam to be a Chicago firefighter in 1995, and then, for the most part, forgot about it.

“It wasn’t like a lifelong dream or anything like that, but our next-door neighbor growing up in Beverly — a close friend of the family — he was a fireman,” his brother said. 

Mr. Lopez, a graduate of Mount Carmel High School, earned a fine arts degree from Columbia College and moved to the North Side, not far from Wrigley Field, to be closer to his favorite music venues.

The location also suited him because he was a massive Cubs fan.

“The bands that kind of changed our perspective on the world were the Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins,” said pal Bill Phelan.


Mike Lopez (right) with friend Bill Phelan.


“Pumpkins at the Metro in 1993 was pretty epic — just to the right of the sound booth, that was our spot. We also saw the White Stripes at the Empty Bottle in 2000 when they were still selling their own CDs,” Phelan said.

“Mike was mostly a foot tapper, a head bopper, with little bursts of excitement, a fist pump kind of thing. He was a big dude; you didn’t want him dancing in a crowd,” he said. 

Post-college jobs varied. While working as a clerk at a law firm, Mr. Lopez began an email campaign to stop the television network Fox from reducing its daily time slots for “The Simpsons” from two to one. 

In 2002 he was watching a football game at the Cork and Kerry, another bar in Beverly, when he met his future wife, who was on a pub crawl sponsored by the radio station WXRT. Mr. Lopez handed her and two of her friends business cards, each with a laughable pickup line and his phone number.

“He was everything to me. I remember one night we sat and looked at Yes album covers for like two hours and compared them,” said Katie Lopez.

“He was exceptionally sensitive and extremely sentimental. He kept every card he ever got. He was also very intelligent and a talented artist and writer, and he never gave himself enough credit for that,” she said, adding that she was recently divorced from Mr. Lopez, but the two remained best friends. 


A sketch of a friend’s new home done by Mike Lopez.


Friends encouraged him to showcase his art but said Mr. Lopez was very self-conscious about criticism, probably from critiques he received as an art student.

He was tapped by the city to become a firefighter in 2006 at the age of 32 — 11 years after he applied for the job.

“You could just tell he liked being at the firehouse. It’s like a family,” Smith said.

“A lot of people who passed by the firehouse or the scene of an event probably have a story about Mike, people who met him once. He was all heart. Loud. Loved the city and hated the city. If you’re a true Chicagoan it’s never just one,” Phelan said.


A painting done by Mike Lopez.


“Mike was really a Chicago original,” said friend and freelance journalist Bob Chiarito, a Sun-Times contributor. “He was always a good person to talk to when you needed a BS detector, and what he had to say was usually spot-on and always pretty damn funny. He was outspoken and had strong opinions, but also was a big teddy bear.”

When Mr. Lopez lost his leg, his friends were there for him.

“His firefighter friends built a ramp for him at our home. They were visiting him at the hospital and in rehab, and if it wasn’t them, it was their wives and girlfriends. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it literally brought him to tears countless times,” Katie Lopez said.

Mr. Lopez was born in June1974 to John and Meridith Lopez. His father worked for a company that leased fleet vehicles. His mother was a nurse. 

His death was unexpected. 


Mike Lopez’s niece, Claire McKeon, holds up sketches she did with her uncle shortly before he died. Mr. Lopez’s sketch is on the right.


The day before he died, he’d been teaching one of his nieces how to use shading to add depth as the two sketched flowers in a Mason jar.

“He was exceptionally close to our nine nieces and nephews,” Katie Lopez said.

Services have been held.

Share This Article

It was Thursday night when we started to negotiate. Do we need to evacuate to the south or

It was Thursday night when we started to negotiate. Do we need

By Chicago

“Please go to a safer place. Your lives matter more than the news.” This is what a news a

“Please go to a safer place. Your lives matter more than the

By Chicago

“Botched” star @drdubrow took some time away from #BravoCon to fill us in on some of the h

“Botched” star @drdubrow took some time away from #BravoCon to fill us

By Chicago