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Published: Wednesday, 2/20/2008

Oregon veteran fire department member retires

BY CHAUNCEY ALCORN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Don Wollenbecker Don Wollenbecker
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

The last active member of Oregon Fire Department's original, full-time firefighting team called it a career last month, working his last day Jan. 30 before joining his wife, Vickie, at their new Goose Creek, S.C., home just outside of Charleston.

Don Wollenbecker, Sr., 54, began his firefighting career in the early 1970s as a member of Perrysburg Township's fire department before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 1975.

Oregon became an incorporated city in 1957, but didn't have a fire department with a full-time crew until 1977. Before that, the department was manned by volunteers.

In 1976, Mr. Wollenbecker joined as a part-time firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician before going full-time the next year as a firefighter and EMT Paramedic.

He was part of a six-man team, including Mike Roe, Kenny Romstadt, Arnie Cowell, Rocky Rothenbuhler, and Rick Adams. Mr. Adams died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 49, according to the department, but the rest of the team is still alive and well. All are living in Oregon except for Mr.

Roe, who lives in Phoenix, Ariz., Mr. Wallenbecker said.

Mr. Wallenbecker's oldest son, Don, Jr., eventually became a firefighter as well, joining Oregon's team in 1997.

Don Wallenbecker, Jr., said having a fireman for a dad was "cool" growing up, but his father didn't want his son to follow in his footsteps.

"He actually tried to talk me out of becoming a firefighter," the younger Wallenbecker said. "He wanted me to make sure I was making the right decision for myself."

The elder Mr. Wallenbecker said his more than 30-year career had a number of highs and lows.

His fondest memories were of the half dozen or so babies he helped deliver as an EMT, he said.

"Just being able to deliver a kid and watching a kid grow through the years is great for me," he said.

The hardest part of the job for Mr. Wallenbecker was getting over the lives he couldn't save, especially when they were children.

"You always relate them to your own kids and at the end of my career I related those kids to my grandkids," he said. "You relate it to losing your mother or father and how you would deal with that.

"You're talking to somebody one minute and two minutes later, you're doing CPR on them and they pass away. It's a gut-wrenching feeling, but it's something you have to do to last in this business."

In addition to fighting fires, Mr. Wallenbecker showed others how to save lives as a program coordinator of public safety for Oregon City Schools, where he conducted firefighting and EMS training for about 20 years.

Oregon Fire Chief Bill Wilkins joined the department as an assistant chief in April, 2006, working with Mr. Wallenbecker during that time and being promoted in January, 2007, to chief, he said.

"I've had a very pleasant experience working with him," Mr. Wilkins said about Don, Sr. "His ability to teach EMS classes and then work over here as a full-time firefighter paramedic, he's always done a great job."

Oregon Fire Department presently has 10 full-time firefighter paramedics providing advanced life-support services out of Station 1, located at 5002 Seaman Rd.

The department also has 85 part-time firefighter EMTs working at three stations throughout the city.

Mr. Wallenbecker worked as a full-time firefighter paramedic and a first aid captain for the part-time division's Station 2 before his retirement.

He and his wife have three grown children, Don Jr., Valerie, 32, who is an Oregon City Schools bus driver, and Troy, 29, a professional bowler who lives in Miami Beach, Fla.



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