ROCKFORD — Alderman John Beck, who represented the city's 12th Ward for 19 years, died early Sunday morning. He was 57.

He was pronounced dead at 12:11 a.m. at Van Matre Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital, Winnebago County Coroner Bill Hintz said.

Beck had been absent from recent City Council meetings. It was not disclosed how long Beck had been at the rehabilitation hospital or what treatment he was receiving.

He had served on the City Council since 2001.

Mayor Tom McNamara said Beck was the epitome of what every alderman should be.

"He was super courageous. He was a great listener, compassionate but he was also strong," McNamara said. "He was strong in his own personal life, obviously with a host of struggles that he has dealt with and did so with such grace.

"He was just one of those consistent, thoughtful, common sense what-can-you-do-to-help-residents type of aldermen. Someone that you wish all aldermen are like. He didn't care about (political) parties."

Beck was born in Hays, Kansas, but grew up in Rockford and graduated from West High School and the University of Illinois.

In June 1978, he broke his neck and damaged his spinal cord diving into a lake in Wisconsin. It was a dive he had done countless times, but this time it left him paralyzed and required him to use a wheelchair.

"If you think about it too much, it doesn't help, so you might as well focus on what you can do and try to be positive. That's what John did," his father, Robert Beck, said in a 1999 interview with the Register Star.

Doctors at the time told Beck he would have to live in an institution under 24-hour care. He didn't listen. He worked, competed in adaptive sports, drove a modified van and represented his fellow Rockfordians on the City Council.

"To doctors, I'm a failure. I'm a reminder of what they couldn't do," he said in 1999. "But I'm not going to stop living because they couldn't fix me."

Beck went on to help countless disabled individuals in northern Illinois through his work with RAMP, a Rockford-based organization that offers services for people with disabilities. He served as the organization's development director for 22 years.

Rockford Alderwoman Venita Hervey marveled at his drive to achieve a fulfilling life.

"He accepted the challenges that were posed by his injury, but they never became a disability or an obstacle," she said.

Hervey also said she enjoyed Beck's "wicked sense of humor."

She recalled going to a City Council meeting the same day she had arthroscopic knee surgery. Just as a lawyer would ask a judge for permission to approach the bench, Hervey, a lawyer by trade, out of habit repeatedly asked then Mayor Larry Morrissey for permission to remain seated before speaking.

"And he would say, 'Certainly. Certainly.'

"But he didn't give me permission to stay seated, so I said it every time I went to stand up.

"And when John raised his hand to say something, he said to Mayor Morrissey, 'Your honor, if you don't mind I'd like to stay seated,' and we all just fell out laughing.

"He could come out with stuff like that when you weren't expecting it."

Alderman Tim Durkee described Beck as a "good man and a good friend."

Durkee said he too enjoyed Beck's sense of humor.

The aldermen sat directly across from each other on the council floor.

"I used to get a chuckle out of him shooting me a sarcastic glance or two on occasion," Durkee said, "but I always found him to be intelligent and thoughtful.

"For us, he was a good smoother on the council. He instituted a sense of collaboration among us."

Alderman Frank Beach described Beck as a true public servant who loved Rockford.

"He took his job very seriously not only on the council but for the Rockford Park District, too. He certainly will be missed."

Beck began his 13-year career with the Rockford Park District serving as the arts, events and recreation project manager.

“Our park district family is heartbroken over the news of John Beck’s passing. John couldn’t wait to come to work and serve his community and he did so with relentless passion and consistency for more than a decade," Park District Executive Director Jay Sandine said in a statement released to local news organizations.

“He specialized in working with people from all backgrounds through his many events and programs including the annual Illinois Snow Sculpting Competition, Festival of Lights, and Music in the Parks. John will also leave a legacy as a champion of accessibility for thousands of children and adults as an expert and leader in the advancement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We will miss his quality service and we will miss his smile.

"One thing we will not miss is his spirit and memory because those will live on forever. He was a legend and a friend. We thank and cherish him for all that he gave and all that he taught us. God bless our brother John.”

The district also noted several highlights for Beck's career, including:

• Managing the production of special events including Illinois Snow Sculpting Competition, Sinnissippi Music Shell programming and Tribute to Veterans.

• Serving as Rockford Park District liaison supporting community events such as Festival of Lights, Juneteenth and others at Sinnissippi Park.

• Conducting physical and programmatic assessments throughout the district to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities in parks and recreation.

• Serving as a founding member of the Rockford Chariots Wheelchair Athletic Association. Beck helped form an adult wheelchair basketball team, which inspired youth to form a junior wheelchair basketball team with the Rockford Park District.

Beck is survived by his wife, Sandra.

Register Star writer Kevin Haas contributed to this report.

Chris Green: cgreen@rrstar.com; @chrisfgreen