I recently experienced a bittersweet but very emotional experience in my fire service career when Chief. Chief Ralph Habersang passed away and was a member of the Wallingford Fire Department (my department) from 1949 to 1976. He was Chief of Department from 1971 to 1976. He was a great leader, and I had the honor to work under him for 4 years. He was instrumental in the most important decision in my fire service career. He hired me!
Before final selection, departments usually have a final interview. During this interview the chief will usually ask the candidate questions to help him evaluate if he should hire you. Frankly I don’t remember any of questions he asked me, except one, the last one. He simply asked, “Mike, You’ve gone to college, how do I know you’re going to stay?” My answer was completely honest and without much thought. I said, “Chief, if you hire me I’ll give you four good years before I make a decision.” He said thank you, we shook hands, and I left the interview. A few weeks later I was told to report to engine one at 6 PM on January 2, 1972. He must have liked the answer. Chief Habersang had decided to give me a chance. That was 42 years ago.
Last June, I saw him in church. It had been over almost 40 years since I had seen him.As we were leaving, I tapped him on the shoulder and said “Chief Habersang” reintroducing myself. Forty years flashed by in an instant. He answered, “Mike Callan, I was just thinking about you the other day, how are you doing?” I told him I was going to Denver and Seattle to train firefighters. He said “I always thought you would do ok”. I thanked him for hiring me and as we parted I asked him if him if I could take him to the fire house so he could identify some of the fire photos from the “old days”. He was hospitalized shortly after that and passed away August 26th.
The next week at the Continuing Challenge in Sacramento as I looked out on friends, students, and other instructors I dedicated my keynote speech to Chief Habesang. I told the audience of almost 1000 attendees of his history as a firefighter, patriot and mentor. But to me, the most significant fact was that had Ralph Habersang not hired me I would not have been speaking to that audience on that day. I would not have met any of them. I would not have had the honor of being a fire fighter. For 42 years I have been proud to work with emergency responders, both public and private. Everything and everyone I know in my career I would have probably never met it not been for him.
Four days later in Wallingford, I told this story to his sons, daughters and grandchildren. I wanted them to know that every fire fighter I have ever taught or influenced is pure and simple a part of their father’s fire service legacy. In 1971 Ralph Habersang made a decision that gave me an opportunity that I have never regretted and sadly will never be able to truly thank him enough for selecting me. However, knowing his character, I am pretty sure he would have used the universal fire fighter answer when anyone thanks them. Regardless of how simple or heroic their act was, a fire fighter usually just says in some form or fashion – “Hey no thanks necessary…I was just doing my job”