BROWNWOOD, Texas – Shannon Stone loved joking around with his pals. He loved giving nicknames to his colleagues. And he loved being a fireman, the job he'd wanted since he was a kid.
Yet what this tall, smiling 39-year-old loved most were baseball and his family, especially his 6-year-old son, Cooper.
So the fact Stone died while taking Cooper to a Texas Rangers game — and, worse still, while reaching to catch a baseball thrown by the boy's favorite player, Josh Hamilton — was hardly mentioned during his memorial service Monday.
Instead, the focus was on how much joy he brought to so many people, and he was laid to rest with all the formality of a firefighter who died in the line of duty.
"They really, really captured the essence of what he was — a really good guy with a good sense of humor," said Johnson County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Russek II, who knew Stone for more than 20 years and worked with his father and brother. "He cared about people, like a true servant."
More than 1,000 people filled the First United Methodist Church, the majority of them firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers from across Texas. After an hour-long service that Russek described as having "probably more laughter than tears," the officers lined up in rows for an emotional procession to the cemetery eight miles away.
A lone bagpipe player was first, followed by a firefighter carrying Stone's helmet. Next came six men carrying Stone plain, wooden casket, folded flag on top. More pallbearers held the rest of his equipment: his firesuit, boots and jacket. Everything was loaded onto a fire truck and began, with Stone's widow, Jenny, walking hand-in-hand with Cooper.
About 60 emergency vehicles from agencies all over Texas joined the procession for the long, slow walk. The procession hardly went 100 yards without someone standing on the side of the road waving a U.S. flag or holding their hand over their heart — from trash collectors to farmers to workers at an insurance company to drivers deciding to pull over and show their support.
Stone was with the Brownwood Fire Department for 18 years, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He was the leader of the 'A' shift, and 10 members of that crew were listed as pallbearers.
Last Thursday, Stone took Cooper to Rangers Ballpark for a game against the Oakland A's. They even stopped to buy the boy a new glove, and sat in left field, where Hamilton plays.
In the second inning, Hamilton threw them a foul ball. Stone reached for the ball but fell headfirst through a gap about 20 feet onto concrete, with Cooper watching. Witnesses said Stone was conscious after landing and sounded worried about Cooper being left alone. Stone was pronounced dead within an hour; an autopsy ruled the cause as blunt force trauma from the fall.
Team officials were expected to be among those inside the church for the private memorial. In keeping with the family's wishes, the team did not say who was coming, and they did not speak to reporters.
The only mention of the circumstances surrounding Stone's death during the service was a reference to Stone visiting his parents in Cleburne on the way to the game, Russek said.
"He spent about two or three hours with them before he went to the game. Thank God for that," Russek said.
Fire department chaplain David Fair read notes from family members and friends. He kept the mood light, telling funny stories and offering a Top 10 list that actually had 11 items because, a relative joked, Stone wasn't the best at math.
"All of them were basically about his personality, capturing him and his love for his family, especially his son," Russek said. "His wife - and it may not have been part of the top 10 - said the reason they didn't have any more kids is because he didn't know if he had any more love left in him for another child to share."
Brownwood is a town of about 20,000 residents in the Texas Hill Country, some 150 miles west of the Rangers' stadium in Arlington. Flags across the area remained at half-staff.
"For this community it will always be just kind of a mind-boggling thing," said Luke Kilmartin, 23, who works at a fitness center where many of the firefighters and their families work out, including Jenny Stone and Cooper. "To lose someone regardless of how they're lost is always a tragedy and nothing less, but it's to know how we get to remember him and it's to know how we get to recognize him and his family and to support them and to love them and to watch Jenny and Cooper continue to push on."
Associated Press Photographer Tony Gutierrez contributed to this report.