Rick Wesener

2021 Community Heroes - The Outlook - Gresham

Hometown: Gresham

Why he is a community hero: Wesener leads a neighborhood-focused fire department in Gresham and loves to save lives, educate and connect with youths, and do all the little things for his community.

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FROM COURT TO FIRE CREW

On his first week as a firefighter, a former Australian professional basketball player sat in the mud to keep a trapped boy calm as heavy machinery cut through concrete to free the child.

The youth had gotten stuck, and was panicking, before Mick Wesener — the former Aussie baller — arrived on the scene. And even though he was green as a firefighter, Wesener knew how to connect with the boy. He spoke with the child about shared interests, cracked jokes and did everything possible to keep the boy still until he was freed from the concrete pipe.

“Being a firefighter requires a certain mindset,” Wesener said. “You are saving lives and property, but also being there and connecting with people in need of help.”

Growing up in Australia, firefighting was never a profession that crossed Wesener’s mind — he explained the fire service down under doesn’t have the same impact on community and kids that it does in the U.S.

Instead, he was drawn to athletics, falling in love with basketball. A shooting guard, he made it all the way to the practice squad of a professional team in Townsville, Australia.

“Even though I never saw the court, I loved being in the world of athletics and following that dream,” he said.

But Wesener’s life trajectory began to shift after meeting his wife, who was from California. The two moved to the United States in 2004 for what was originally supposed to be just a few years so Wesener could meet her family and friends, and see where she grew up. But his time as a professional athlete had come to an end and he was searching for something new.

“I was married with kids on the way and I knew I needed to find a stable career to be an adult,” Wesener said.

So he made a list of all the reasons he loved basketball. He was drawn to the team aspect, the players all working toward a common goal; he loved the physical and mental challenges that came with competing on the court; and, his favorite part, Wesener enjoyed connecting with the community.

“As a basketball player, we would go to different events and host clinics for youth,” he said. “We signed autographs and brightened people’s day. Being a role model was part of being an athlete.”

With that list in mind, Wesener started seeking a new career. At first he looked into law enforcement, but that wasn’t an option because he wasn’t yet a U.S. citizen. Then his wife sparked an idea — what about firefighting?

The new direction checked all of his boxes, so he got his EMT certification from Portland Community College, and followed that by taking fire classes. One of the first, Fire Protection 101, featured retired firefighters teaching skills.

“One of the guys spoke with this passion, and he would light up and have this energy when talking about the job,” Wesener said. “It was really inspiring.”

Wesener cruised through all the requirements and was hired as a 25-year-old by the Gresham Fire Department in 2006. He first worked out of Gresham Station 71, the flagship building near City Hall. That station conducts lots of school tours and meet-and-greets with other community groups.

“Seeing their level of excitement and being able to have conversations with kids about safety was important,” he said. “You can sense the respect they have for the profession and get that face-to-face time.”

In his 15-year career with Gresham Fire Wesener, 40 and a Happy Valley resident, moved up the ranks. He now serves as one of nine captains and helms Station 73 off Highland Drive in Southwest Gresham.

“Captain Wesener is a friendly and approachable leader who is respected among his peers,” said Fire Chief Mitch Snyder. “He leads by example with the high standards he set for himself.”

The calls that stick with Wesener most are the ones that don’t necessarily fit the traditional idea of firefighting.

One time he and his crew were sent to a home in which a babysitter had a medical emergency. While they waited for the mom to return, the firefighters ended up serving as babysitters for the evening. They cooked dinner, changed diapers and played games.

“This has risen above that dream I had of being an athlete,” he said. “Firefighting has a true impact on the community and really makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Perhaps more than any other station in Gresham, the firefighters at 73 are truly embedded in the community. They bump into people shopping at the local grocery store and neighbors stop by during evening walks to say hello.

“It’s not just the major emergencies,” Wesener said. “You get to help with the little things — if an older resident needs help around the house, or if someone is having trouble with a smoke detector. We are going to be there.”

And even though he had to have his hips replaced and doesn’t play basketball anymore, Wesener occasionally has to display his shooting prowess for the new recruits.

“I always tell them they will never beat me in a game of ‘horse,’” Wesener said with a laugh.