After Illinois State Trooper Nicholas Hopkins was fatally shot on the job, his wife and high school sweetheart Whitney Hopkins says she wanted to be mad at something or someone, but she couldn’t.
Instead, she happily thought about the family they made together: their 4-year-old twins and a baby girl. She remembered all the times her husband had shown up and followed through, even when she said it was hard.
“You have a choice to do the little things in life. Do them. Make time for what’s most important,” she said.
It was her message to the hundreds of people who attended Hopkins’ public funeral service Sunday morning at the high school where the couple met in Waterloo. Hopkins, 33, was shot to death Aug. 23 when he and members of his SWAT team were serving a warrant at a home in East St. Louis. A man has been charged in his death.
Those who knew Hopkins — a young, energetic man with a wide smile — and many more who never met him traveled to his hometown this weekend to show their gratitude for his decade of service in the State Police.
They left notes, flowers, candles and other small gifts on his squad car-turned memorial at Waterloo’s City Hall. They hammered American flags into the ground along his funeral’s procession route. And they stood in line for hours in the heat to attend his visitation Saturday.
On Sunday, family, friends and law enforcement officers from around the region began arriving early for the funeral. Businesses and churches in town had changed their signs to messages such as, “Thank you for your service, Trooper Hopkins.”
A long line of law enforcement vehicles from across the metro-east lined the entrance to the high school.
Larry Trent, who was director of the State Police from 2003 to 2009, was there for the service.
“It’s a sad day, and it always saddens me when I have to attend these,” he said before the service began. “But we are family together, and we have to stand together and show up for each other. It’s a real tragedy. He was a tremendous officer, and I’m heartsick.”
Brendan Kelly, acting director of the State Police, escorted the family — Whitney and their three children — into the school Sunday morning.
Photos of Hopkins and uniforms from his days as a high school athlete lined the stage in the gym. Troopers stood guard on both sides of his flag-draped casket.
The bleachers were filled with uniformed troopers and officers from other agencies, as well as family, friends and members of the public.
In the afternoon, more than 100 uniformed law enforcement officers filled Waterloo City Cemetery, where Hopkins was buried. Bagpipes played and cicadas chirped as Hopkins’ brothers in arms carried his casket to the gravesite.
Trooper was important to his family, the community
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Kelly spoke during the morning service, along with Hopkins’ family and his pastor.
Hopkins was remembered as a devoted father and husband who was always willing to lend a hand, whether it was a neighbor in need or a stranded motorist.
Pritzker called Hopkins a hometown hero.
“The state of Illinois and its grateful people weep for you today,” the governor said.
Like Hopkins’ children, Pritzker was young when his father died. He said he wants them to know “what a wonderful and memorable mark their father has left on this world.”
Hopkins took his job seriously, Pritzker said, but he also knew how to make people smile, including by wearing non-regulation American flag socks with his uniform.
Kelly recalled how much Hopkins loved the American flag. The acting ISP director was among the people who placed the flag over Hopkins’ body before moving him from the hospital to a transplant center, where he would donate his organs.
Kelly said Hopkins would have been proud.
“We will rightly name a road or bridge after Trooper Hopkins ... but that will not be his greatest monument,” Kelly said.
His greatest monument, Kelly said, is the example he set. “His life is a challenge to all of us. In the most difficult of moments, in this moment, how can we possibly answer that challenge? ... What would Trooper Hopkins do?”
Hopkins’ brother, Zack, an officer with the Columbia Police Department, spoke about Nick’s kindness. He said his brother started volunteering at a nursing home when he was just 10 years old.
He choked up as he said his brother’s signature toothy grin was a reflection of his heart and his “unmeasurable love for his family,” especially for Whitney Hopkins.
When they were growing up, Zack and Nick shared a bed in the six-sibling household.
“A hand, arm or his cold feet would always be touching me,” Zack said. It was like a security blanket for the both of them.
“We took comfort in each other until the end,” he said of all of the Hopkins siblings. “No matter what, we were never alone. Nick was always standing tall by our side.”
Law enforcement recognized for their service
Pritzker addressed Kelly and the officers of the south SWAT team during the funeral.
“I see your grief, “ he said. “I also see your heroism, your bravery, your incredible bond of community every day. Your strength is often lauded, but I know it is built at a high cost.”
He said he wanted them to know “how much your Illinois family values what you sacrifice.”
Hopkins’ pastor, Jamey Bridges of Life Community Church in Columbia, reminded the officers that “what you do is a calling … you have a purpose.”
“You have a calling, and I can imagine there are days and nights on end when you tire of human behavior,” he said. “I wonder if you second guess yourself occasionally. Let me encourage you: Whatever the outcomes of your work, you are God’s servants.”
Waterloo turns out for Trooper Hopkins one last time
Illinois State Police encouraged the public to line the procession route Sunday afternoon, like they had when Hopkins’ body was brought back to Waterloo from St. Louis on Aug. 26.
Among those waiting for the procession to come through were longtime friends of the Hopkins family — Carol Vogt, Jane Clair, Lyla Lich and Sandy Rausch — who cried as they spoke about the effect of Hopkins’ death on the community.
“I love this family so much,” said Clair, who came back home to Waterloo from Georgia this weekend. “These six children (of the Hopkins family) have affected this whole community. You can’t walk through Waterloo without hearing the Hopkins name.”
Even those who didn’t know the family personally turned out to support them Sunday, including Lori Harbaugh, who brought along her children and nephews, sitting them in front of a police flag with her neighbor’s kids.
“We’re very saddened by this,” Harbaugh said. She said it was important for the young children in her family to be there, so they could show support for those in law enforcement, saying there were quite a few officers who live in their neighborhood.
Along Illinois 3 in Waterloo, a large crowd stood silently as the long procession of squad cars and the armored SWAT vehicle that held the casket passed. Some held flags. Others placed their hand over their heart.
“This is what we do. We’re all mourning,” Katie Johnson, of Dupo said, as she prepared for the procession to pass her group in Columbia’s downtown. Johnson was among several members of area fire departments who set up flags.