Before they got married, Mark Eckert was driving Rita Eckert down East Main Street when he suddenly shouted, "We have to stop!" and pulled the car over.
A crowd had gathered by the Lincoln Theatre around a man who fell from his bicycle.
Eckert, an emergency medical technician-intermediate at the time, recognized the man from previous hospital transports and knew he was having a seizure.
"His life has always been about helping others," Rita said.
Eckert served on the Belleville City Council as either an alderman or mayor for the past 16 years. But for just as long, before he got into politics, Eckert was a different kind of public servant.
Eckert was student council president at Belleville West High School as an underclassman. He didn't run senior year because he knew he would graduate a semester early to work for Pete Gaerdner Funeral Home.
He started to drive an ambulance for the funeral home at age 17. During the next 15 years, Eckert believes he went on more than 15,000 ambulance calls. He got to know every street and many families.
"You saw how fragile life was," Eckert said. "You felt what people were going through ... and learned how to deliver bad news and minimize their pain and suffering."
Eckert's mom, Shirley Eckert, said people would tell her son, "If I have to go in the ambulance again, I hope you pick me up."
As a teen, Eckert dealt with trauma on the job with a deep sense of faith he got from his mom, a Sunday school teacher for 57 years, and common sense from his dad, Robert Eckert, who retired as a sergeant after 25 years with the Belleville Police Department.
Eckert said he became interested in emergency work because of his father. For three years, before his father retired, the two showed up for the same emergencies -- his father as a commanding officer and he through his paramedic work.
"My dad taught me that in life, you have to make decisions and you can't always second guess yourself," Eckert said. "You have to realize in your mind that you did the best you could."
Eckert was about 25, with a demanding and irregular work schedule, when he divorced his first wife. Things were tough, but he tried to make opportunities out of obstacles.
Eckert's work schedule freed him to take their son, Matthew, to school and help in the classroom.
That time of life helped prepare Eckert, now 57, for his life as mayor -- also a job where he is on call any time.
To this day, the whole family can be asleep, but Eckert will pick up late night phone calls.
"He catches that phone on the first ring and he's wide awake," Rita said.
Eckert met Rita because she worked at Dill Floral Haven next to the funeral home. They crossed paths often and, as a team, visited children in hospice.
"We got to be good friends and then we fell in love," Eckert said.
It sounds cliche, Rita said, but her dad always told her, "If you find a man that treats his mom nice, he's going to treat you nice."
Before they were married in 1986, Eckert sang a solo at Rita's Christian Women's Club, which used to meet at Fischer's.
Eckert was in choir in high school -- had a lead in a school play where he tap danced -- and used to sing at weddings. Now he sings in the car.
"He doesn't know all the words and he still sings along," Rita said.
Rita and Eckert got married before she knew he would be in public service. She and their children have had to adjust to Eckert's 24/7 job as mayor.
"My kids have had to endure a lot," Eckert said. "You can't take off the mayor's hat. Wherever you go in the city, you're the mayor. People stop you and expect your full attention."
Eckert and his wife celebrated their 25th anniversary two years ago on election night with Eckert's Good Government Party. The election cake was topped with a bride and groom figurine.
During weekends, Eckert carves time for family. He takes his mom to the hairdresser on Saturdays and to church on Sundays. And he helps Rita deliver flowers for their business, Eckert Florist.
Being mayor gave Eckert more time to do things than when he was a paramedic, such a Scoutmaster. His two sons are Eagle Scouts and the elder son, Matthew, is now a trauma surgeon and major with the Army in Afghanistan.
The family tends to go on vacation after election season ends. Eckert and his sons, his brother and nephew might go pheasant hunting or fishing on Kentucky Lake. Most recently, Eckert and Rita took their younger daughter to the Great Smoky Mountains, a trip the couple has taken about 20 times.
Several times a week, Eckert drives miles across the city in the mornings to check for potholes, liability issues and to see if anything is out of place.
To relax, he takes walks in the city -- alone, with Rita or Ken Kinsella, a Ward 1 alderman.
Eckert's father died before Eckert became mayor. But Eckert's father was around when Eckert helped start the nonprofit Franklin Neighborhood Association to turn the troubled area around. Eckert's parents were supportive and his dad would cook lunch for the volunteers.
The success of Franklin Neighborhood inspired Eckert to later run, and be elected, for Ward 5 alderman.
"My dad said to me, 'Are you sure you want to get into all that? Politics can sometimes be challenging and frustrating.' And I said, 'I feel like I have to.'"
Eckert's father told him then that he'd do fine.
"Helping others, helping the community -- I got it from my parents," Eckert said. "I always believed that if you're able to do something, you should step up and do it."
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at email@example.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.