U.S. Capitol Police Officer Vernon J. Alston dies shoveling snow at his home Delaware. (Family photo/Family photo)

A veteran U.S. Capitol Police officer and a fixture on the Hill died Saturday after suffering a heart attack while shoveling snow outside his home on the Eastern Shore of Delaware, according to his wife and law enforcement officials.

Officer Vernon J. Alston was 44 and had spent nearly two decades patrolling the Capitol grounds. He was known to lawmakers yet so humble about his job that he failed to tell his wife when he chased down and subdued a theft suspect a couple months ago.

“He was the type of man who wanted to help people,” said his wife of seven years, Nicole Alston, 42, who works at the National Zoo. “In his mind, he was a superhero.” She also said, “He would help you, but he was modest about it. That’s how he lived his life: being an officer allowed him to come to their rescue.”

Alston’s death was announced Sunday by the office of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “For twenty years Officer Vernon Alston was a fixture on the Capitol grounds while keeping the community safe,” Reid said in a statement.

The Capitol Police said in a statement that Alston mostly worked with the House division. Chief Kim Dine described the death as a “tragic loss” for Alston’s family and the police force. “Officer Alston was someone who loved his job, and his loss leaves a huge void in the hearts of all of the men and women” with the Capitol Police.

Alston was one of several people from the D.C. region who died shoveling snow over the weekend. At least two deaths were reported in Maryland — in Fort Washington and in Abingdon, which is northeast of Baltimore. Police and rescue workers have repeatedly warned of the stress of shoveling snow.

Nicole Alston said her husband was helping neighbors shovel in their small town of Magnolia, Del., near Dover Air Force Base, when he came into their home about noon to take a break. He then went into the garage, screamed his wife’s name and collapsed. “He was pretty much gone,” Nicole Alston said.

Because of the storm, emergency workers had to shovel a path to the house through snow banks. She said a tow truck then had to pull the ambulance so it could reach the street. She said her husband was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital shortly after arriving about 2 p.m.

Alston said her husband had just begun his 19th year on the U.S. Capitol Police force, which patrols the Capitol grounds and extends into residential neighborhoods and the various buildings that include the House and Senate offices.

Alston said she worried about her husband doing police work, but she was more concerned about his commute, more than 90 miles each way between Magnolia and Washington. She made the same commute as well, to the zoo, where she has worked in administration for 13 years, but their differing schedules meant they couldn’t often carpool.

“He was a very genuine man,” Alston said. “People looked at him as a counselor. People came to him for advice. He had a genuine love for people.”

Alston had first encountered her future husband in 1992 when both were students at Howard University. “He would watch me at Howard,” she said, though she didn’t know it at the time. “He told me he had always wanted to say something to me.”

That opportunity didn’t come until 15 years later, during a chance meeting at First and Independence streets outside the U.S. Capitol. He was on patrol and Nicole was walking by. They chatted. “He remembered me from back then” Alston said. “He remembered my face. He remembered what I studied.”

They married in six months. He had a son and daughter from a previous marriage, she had a daughter, all of whom are now teenagers. The couple had one child together, Breyden Alston, who is 3.

“It is a beautiful story of how I met him,” Alston said. “He was the man of my dreams.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.