Mike Isenberg had no possessions of his late father, a former Pekin firefighter, only bittersweet memories. His daughter, Bridget, barely knew the man.
The three came together this month, in a way that has the two believing Richard Isenberg made it so with love from the afterlife.
“I look at it as an incredibly fateful thing, so does my daughter,” Mike, 64, said from his Hollywood, Calif., home.
His father returned to their lives last Sunday when Pekin Firefighter Nic Sandifar placed in Bridget’s hands two badges, in their leather cases, and ID cards that Richard Isenberg carried as the department’s fire inspector before he retired in 1982.
Sandifar happened to find them for sale in an eBay auction. He checks the website for items from the city Fire Department because it once offered a department baseball cap that someone stole from an engine at a fire scene, said department Capt. Tony Rendleman.
Sandifar recognized the name the badges bore only because Isenberg’s passing three years ago warranted a department honor guard at his funeral.
Rendleman went to Limestone Township High School with Bridget Nine Gabbert, “but I didn’t know her,” didn’t know she had changed her name from Alicia Isenberg after graduation and marriage, and didn’t know she lived in Lacon, he said.
But his wife, who also went to Limestone, had remained friends with Bridget and did know that.
“It took the right combination of things,” Rendleman said, to reconnect, and reconstruct, the Isenberg family through the badges.
It took more than that, said Mike and Bridget. They found they had never left the family nature of firefighters.
“I have a deep relationship with all those guys at the (Pekin) department,” Mike said. When he grew up, “I knew them all. It was a brotherhood, and apparently, it still is.”
“I never really knew my grandfather was a fireman,” Bridget, 39, said. Her deep affection for them, however, was sealed when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, where she lived at the time, took many of their lives.
“They are selfless men,” she said. “They’re absolute heroes.”
Pekin's firefighters, as far as she and her dad are concerned, also passed on a gift of healing from the late Dick Isenberg.
Rifts grew in the Isenberg family in the 1970s, just as Mike was emerging with The Jets, a rock band he led with guitar and vocals that became a regional draw and produced several songs that registered on radio pop charts.
When his dad’s badges and cards appeared from a past Mike had left behind, “It was like his way of saying that’s all over with. No matter what happened (between the two,) it’s all good.
“Let’s put it this way,” Mike said, “I think it’s a miracle.”
What else, he asked, can explain the emergence of the badges and cards on eBay for a two-day auction, just as Sandifar was perusing that site? Though Mike wasn’t in touch with other family members, he’s sure none would want to sell them.
Dave Craig, executive director of the Hope Chest thrift store in Pekin, provided part of the answer.
“A family member, I understand, donated them” to his non-profit operation. They likely came buried in a box of other Isenberg mementos after his death.
Mike surmises the box came from the daughter of a woman whose sister had become Isenberg’s companion after he and Mike’s mother divorced. The badges passed on from the companion to her sister and, after the latter’s death, to her daughter. She likely gave the items to the Hope Chest, Mike said.
“We process items from garage and estate sales and the like and put them out in the store” for sale to finance the Hope Chest’s operations and programs to help low-income families, Craig said.
Items like fire department badges are popular with collectors, but the Hope Chest didn’t put them on eBay, he said. “Someone bought them” at the store and, after waiting a year, put them up for auction on Aug. 5, he said.
The Pekin firefighters found the badges, contacted Bridget and learned remnants of the family rift still existed. She and her dad feared the badges would be removed from the site if it became known they were bidding, Rendleman said.
“Nic said he would bid for them,” said Rendleman. The bidding “went a bit higher” than expected, “but we got them.
“We wanted them to go back to (Isenberg’s) family,” and as a gift, Rendleman said. He and Sandifar paid the sales price.
Isenberg’s badges are back home now. For Bridget, “It was almost like meeting him for the first time.” She said she’ll keep one and send the other to her dad.
They come with yet one more gift — inspiration.
Bridget’s 6-year-old son Cash “always says he wants to be a fireman,” she said. Last Sunday, Pekin’s firefighters “gave him the full treatment” with a tour of their main station, Rendleman said.
Mike shared his thoughts on the subject in a note to his father on Mike’s Facebook page.
“Good for you, Dick Isenberg. Your (great) grandson wants to be a fireman. What do you think of that?”
Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin