The legacy of leadership: Craig Lilja

NEWMAN GROVE, Neb. -- The death of a leader known as a "small-town hero," a "sincere country boy," and an "ornery leader": Craig Lilja will be remembered in many ways.

Lilja grew up the rural way — surrounded by close friends who he would get into trouble with.

"...made a few teachers uneasy," joked Lilja's childhood friend, Jim Wyant. "We would be put in the penalty box just to escape it and get into more trouble. We had a lot of fun."

But as he matured, Lilja became an organized, tenacious, and proactive leader. Eventually, he became co-captain of Newman Grove's Volunteer Fire and Rescue.

His fellow volunteers said Lilja was always first on any scene.

When he wasn't helping people in official capacities, Lilja would discreetly help residents in other ways, going out of his way to support the community.

He earned awards for his 40 years of volunteer work, running an insurance company, practicing photography, and raising funds for a new fire facility. He even initiated sanitation methods in the fire and rescue facility before surrounding towns even knew how to deal with COVID-19.

"I don't see any one of us picking [his service] up. It's going to have to be a group effort," Fire/Rescue co-captain Mark Seier said emotionally.

Lilja died of heart concerns Monday. His funeral will be on Friday.


Craig is survived by his wife Debra (Blokzyl) Lilja of Newman Grove, Nebraska; brother Ronald (Barbara) Lilja of Norfolk, Nebraska; brother Kirk (Deanna) Lilja of Newman Grove, Nebraska; brother Brent Lilja of Colorado; and sister Jan (Lilja) Benson of Lincoln, Nebraska.  He is also survived by many nieces/nephews and great-nieces/nephews.