Honoring their sacrifices
Officials dedicate portion of M-35 to Forsyth Township’s fallen firefighters, Ben Lauren and Don Riling
GWINN — Two heroes who tragically passed away in the line of duty are now forever enshrined in their community.
Ben Lauren and Don Riling served as firefighters with the Forsyth Township Fire Department. Riling, 41, passed away while battling a house fire in the township on March 19, 1988. Lauren, 23, was fatally injured while fighting a structure fire at K.I. Sawyer on March 13, 2020.
Lauren and Riling are the only two firefighters to pass away in the line of duty in FTFD’s 114-year history, and both were honored and memorialized Saturday during the 126th annual Upper Peninsula Volunteer Firefighters Tournament, hosted this year by FTFD for the first time.
After a fun-filled day of firefighter races, live music and more, a ceremony was held to officially dedicate the portion of M-35 that passes through Forsyth Township as the Ben Lauren and Don Riling Memorial Highway.
The Lauren and Riling families were on hand for the dedication, along with state Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette; state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain; state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah Township; state Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer; and many more county and township officials.
“Ben (Lauren) and Don Riling were two firefighters that left us way too soon,” Cambensy said. “They left families, children, moms and dads, and all of their fellow volunteers that they served with — who are just like their own family me
“The Lauren family and particularly (Ben’s mother) Carla, focused so much energy on getting fellow firefighters through this hard time, and she did with her own family. When Don Riling died, he left behind his wife and two sons, one of whom is here with us (today).
“When certain events happen, you never forget where you are. When I got the call from (Forsyth Township Supervisor) Joe Boogren, I was actually down in Lansing in my office.
“I didn’t get to the phone but when I listened to the message, I heard in his voice the desperation and loss of not just a firefighter, but a good friend. When you guys (firefighters) go out, you make the ultimate sacrifice to your family, to your friends, and all of us in your communities, and it’s a debt that we can never repay. We must always remember. Thank you. Thank you for what you do.
“It’s been my pleasure to work with Sen. McBroom. As soon as the news hit all over the state, not only did him and I get calls from fellow community members, but our colleagues from all over the state reached out to us and offered their condolences. Many of them who have served themselves either in law enforcement or as firefighters, they know what that feeling is like.”
Cambensy presented Riling’s son Mark with a replica sign of the one that now stands along M-35 through the township.
Dedications of this nature don’t happen without state legislation, either.
Marquette County Commissioner Bill Nordeen said at the ceremony that McBroom was the one to get the ball rolling in Lansing.
“Mr. McBroom is the one that introduced the legislation to get the road named the Ben Lauren and Don Riling Memorial Highway,” he said.
The legislation was passed by the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last month.
McBroom said a sense of community is so vital, especially during times of loss.
“I think a part of why it’s so important and why so many of you feel that too, is because community matters,” he said. “We live in a world today where community is being constantly run down. People don’t understand what community is anymore. People think it’s a community just because they go online and they visit with somebody who’s thousands of miles away but thinks like they think. A community is about coming together with people that we have common things and uncommon things together, but yet we have to be together.
“We have to learn to work together and participate together, and nothing exemplifies that in our small towns and communities more, I think, than our volunteer fire departments. Men and women of all different backgrounds and stripes of life and ages coming together with a common purpose and goal of protecting life and property, protecting their friends and their neighbors. Having a common binding goal together.
“But all throughout the U.P., we celebrate community. One of the ways I really know Ben is from our time at the Upper Peninsula State Fair, from working together showing cattle. That’s a great community event too, and all over the U.P. we have these events that celebrate community.
“When we come together for (a) memorial, such as we have (today), to celebrate the Riling and the Lauren (families), why do we do these things? What’s the value of placing a sign on the highway? What’s the value of putting a plaque on a park or a monument? The value is what we get to share with our children. It’s the lessons that we get to learn. This is why, throughout time in memoriam, back into the Old Testament, God told the children of Israel ‘Put these stones here, raise this marker here,’ so when your children say ‘Why are these here?’ You can tell them what happened, you can tell them what your fathers did, what your mothers did, what God did. And (today) when we recognize and unveil a sign recognizing this highway as the Ben Lauren and Don Riling Memorial Highway, we have the distinct obligation and privilege that when people ask us, and especially when our children ask us and our grandchildren ask us, ‘Why is this sign here? Who are these people?’ It’s a chance to share with them ‘These are people who made a mark on our community. These are people who changed a way of life, they gave their life to preserve this community, to preserve our friends and neighbors.’
“These things mean something. They have real meaning, but only if we as a community don’t fail to tell others about what it is. We have to pass that along. We have to make it mean something.
“Don Riling, involved with his community, a firefighter, softball, bowling league, a member of the Masons, and there are several firefighters here (today) who served along with him.
“Ben Lauren, known for his trademark John Deere hats I remember seeing at the fair, proud to participate and help other kids.
“We come together as people in a community and recognize this sacrifice and celebrate that, because we need people to be inspired to continue with that. We need all of you who are volunteering now, but we need more. Many of you know how thin the ranks have gotten for our EMS, firefighters and our police forces. Let us carry forward with what real community means by celebrating the lives of those who have sacrificed ahead of us.”
McBroom presented Lauren’s parents, Ron and Carla, with their replica highway sign. Lauren’s siblings, Levi and Tori, were also present.
Lauren was a captain at the Forsyth Township Fire Department and a third-generation volunteer firefighter.
Along with serving with FTFD, Riling was a professional firefighter with the U.S. Air Force.
Lauren was also named U.P. Firefighter of the Year by the U.P. Volunteer Firefighters Association and the Pigs N’ Heat Fire Relief Fund.
Lauren’s parents thanked the community for its support, saying that a foundation has been created in Ben Lauren’s name to support first responders in the U.P.
“The community support, the fire department support, the whole U.P. community has just been phenomenal,” Ron Lauren said. “The national community has been phenomenal. What happened with Ben, his legacy is going to go on forever, because we created a Ben Lauren Memorial Foundation. One of the things in the foundation is to help local police, fire and EMS throughout the whole U.P. If you guys need equipment now or in the future, we’d love for you to get ahold of us.
“It started out at $200,000, and we’re going (to) $400,000 in January, and we’re hoping to build it up to $800,000, to $1 million, in the next few years.”
Carla Lauren also thanked the community and those who made the highway dedication possible.
“I just wanted to say thank you to everybody who brought this to fruition to honor Don and Ben,” she said. “It could’ve been any one of the firefighters that had been at those scenes. It just turns out that it was our family’s.
“Who knew that 25 years ago when I attended my first fire tournament that I’d be here (today). Grief can be a very lonely place, but our families, friends and faith in God, and people have pointed out our strength, let me tell you it’s not our strength, we have been carried by our faith in God, we’ve been carried by our trust in God, we’ve been carried by our town, our family, our friends and this brotherhood of fellow firefighters. I’ve laid awake at night wondering how we can thank everybody for all their prayers and support and cards and messages, and this is my opportunity.
“Thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for your love, thank you for your kindness, and may God continue to bless you all and your families, and thank you.”
Ryan Spitza can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. His email address is email@example.com.