Chief Brink

Randy Leonard

It was quite a photo as I look at it today. I was 25 years old, tall and skinny with hair in places on my head long ago exposed bare by times relentless march. It was my photo ID as a new Portland Firefighter. Taken the day I was sworn in on January 25, 1978.

MelBrinkBut before I could be sworn in, I had to be interviewed by Assistant Chief Mel Brink. He was the second in command of the Portland Fire Bureau. As I arrived at the 55 SW Ash main headquarters one week before I was to be appointed a brand new Portland firefighter, I felt my stomach in my throat. My hands were sweaty and my field of vision was narrow. I had passed the written, the physical and now, for the final test, I was going to be “eye balled” by Chief Brink.

As I rode the old elevator to the third floor of Engine 21, the main fire station, now known as Station 1, I was imagining what kind of a man the second in command of Portland's revered Fire Bureau would be like. In my mind he had to be big, burly with a brusque manner that would see right through this skinny kid from across the river. Would he laugh when I walked through the door, and through his gasps for air, say “YOU want to be a firefighter in MY BELOVED Fire Bureau?” It was the only possible thing I could imagine him saying to me.

As I approached his office towards the end of that long, quiet, dimly lit hallway I could hear my heart pounding in my chest. I was married and had an infant son at home. I really, really needed this job. But, and much more importantly, I really, really wanted this job.

I could see a sign hanging that read “Assistant Chief Melvin Brink.” It hung directly over the open door. As I approached from the side of the door, I looked in and saw a man hunched over his desk, writing.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, "I am here to meet with Chief Brink." As the man rose from behind his desk and came across the room at me, I felt instant relief. He was shorter than I was and was slight of build. Mostly, though, I remember his kind brown eyes and disarming smile.

“I am Chief Brink. You must be Randy Leonard?” Chief Brink said. “Yes, sir” is all I could muster. “Have a seat, Randy, and lets get to know each other.”

Lets get to know each other? Where was the intimidation I expected? Where was the skeptical look I anticipated to gaze my way? Get to know each other? Fine by me.

Chief Brink sat behind his desk studying my application intently with an occasional "Hmmm.”

“So, you worked for Rep. Ed Lindquist in the legislature?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“You know he is also a firefighter in Clackamas County?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Ed is a good man, Randy.”

“Yes, sir, I know.”

“Randy, do you think you might be interested in getting involved with the firefighters union?”

That question threw me for a loop. I had never anticipated being asked such a question.

"I am not sure, sir,” I began “I really just want to concentrate on being the best firefighter I can and passing probation.”

“Well, sure, Randy, I understand that. But we need some young people to begin being active in our firefighters union. With your background working for Ed Lindquist, I am sure you would be good at it.”

I was floored. Having gone from thinking I was going to be berated in this interview to actually being complimented because of my past was more than I could process in my hyper active state.

All I could muster was “Thank-you.”

“Well, Randy, welcome aboard. Please report to the training station at 0800 on January 25th. Thanks for coming by. It was good to meet you.”

I stood, reached over the desk and shook hands with the man I considered to be my newest friend in the Portland Fire Bureau, Assistant Chief Mel Brink. I never forgot his comment about me becoming active in the firefighters union. Exactly eight years later I was sworn in as the youngest President of the Portland Firefighters Association in it's history.

Mel worked approximately five more years before he retired. He was the same person to every firefighter, officer and elected official as he was towards me on that day we first met that was one of the most vulnerable days of my life. There are those in this world who are capable of reacting to that skinny kid from the East side in the way I feared Chief Brink might. But Mel Brink was not built that way. Every firefighter who knew Chief Brink had an experience much like mine with him. He was a true gentleman.

He would lose his keys, forget what he was going to do next, but he knew which station and shift each firefighter in Portland was assigned to.

Portland Firefighters loved Chief Brink. We would –and often did- enter the clutches of hell for Chief Brink.

Chief Brink died July 24th at age 82. He leaves behind a loving wife and family.

Rest in peace, Mel.

  • brett (unverified)

    Great post. How cool is it that we have an elected official posting on a collective blog? Portland rules.

  • Tom Chamberlain (unverified)

    Chief Brink was a wonderful example of leadership in the fire service.

  • Tom Chamberlain (unverified)

    Chief Brink was a wonderful example of leadership in the fire service.

  • Scott Jensen (unverified)

    Comish Leonard, With the last few posts you've added here I'm afraid I may have to change my opinion of you. For the better of course. There is something likable about you. It's nice to have you post here on as it gives 'us' a chance to get to know the real you outside of council chambers! Thank you!

  • (Show?)

    Where's the picture of you with hair? C'mon, guy!

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