GREENSBURG — As “non-essential” businesses shutter their doors and send employees home to help flatten the COVID-19 curve, many people have been deemed “essential” and must remain in service.
Police officers, sheriff’s deputies, firemen, UPS and FEDEX delivery drivers, grocery supply-chain personnel and public health personnel are among those who remain on duty until COVID-19 subsides or a vaccine is found.
Greensburg Assistant Fire Chief Brian Wenning is one such person.
Most who know him would agree that Wenning is rarely without a smile or a friendly comment. The 53-year-old widower and father of two seems is usually cheerful and upbeat despite his fair share of challenges.
A son of Don and Teresa Wenning and one of 13 children (six brothers and six sisters), Brian lost his wife, Patti, to breast cancer in 2018. Daughter Maddie is a make-up artist for Sephora in Champaign, Illinois. His other daughter, Mollie, works in the Decatur County Courthouse as a clerk.
Wenning began his career as an upholsterer at Wenning, Rankin and Oliger Funeral Home, the family business started by his grandfather, Charles. Brian upholstered the inside of the caskets they buried their clients in.
In need of insurance and better benefits to support his growing family, Brian found employment with the Greensburg Fire Department in 1992.
He admits that he really never wanted to be a fireman (he wanted to be a teacher or a basketball coach), but he got the job with the GFD.
“And lo and behold, I loved it!” he said.
With Frank Manus as the fire chief, Brian was placed in charge of public education.
“If I could do that every day, go to old folks homes and schools, I’d be a happy man,” he said.
He also said the recent public health emergency has created new challenges.
“These times now with this pandemic, it’s something I’d never seen before, and I’ve seen a lot in the fire service,” he said. “You see people on social media and they’ve got the COVID-19 virus and you know them. That’s scary! It’s an unprecedented threat, and we just don’t know what to expect. It’s uncharted territory. And think about all the personal interaction we do every day. We can’t do that right now, and that’s hard for a social person like myself. So, I stay as healthy as I can because I’m all about helping others and I don’t want to be unable to assist.”
Firemen have a dangerous job; they flirt with death on a regular basis.
When asked about that, Wenning grew quiet and said, “My wife Patti had amazing faith, and so do I. Everyone she knew said she was Christ-like. Watching her through her journey with breast cancer, I learned not to be afraid of death. I know that her suffering is over and she’s at home with her Lord and savior, so I don’t have to worry about her anymore, and that’s good. I miss her love and interaction, [but] I know that she’s out of pain and suffering.”
Brian also shared his basic philosophy when it comes to interacting with others.
“Be nice,” he said. “You don’t have to ram your beliefs down other people’s throats. Just be nice and share joy with them. I think that’s what I’m about.”
Wenning said he could have fallen into despair following his wife’s death, but that’s not the route he selected.
“I chose joy, and I think that’s what we all have to do. We have to choose joy for each other,” he said. “I know Patti’s gone because of ... cancer, but I choose to celebrate the life she lived and not get into a funk because she’s not here with me anymore. People wonder why I’m always smiling. It’s because I choose joy.”
What provides him his greatest joy?
“My daughters and my friends. My daughters because they’re both such beautiful people, and my friends because if it wasn’t for them ... when Patti died, they pulled me through it.”
And what does he want to be remembered for?
“I want to be remembered as a good, stand-up guy, always true to his word and always helping others,” he said. “You can do all kinds of great things and win all kinds of awards, but what really matters? Being good to people. I just want to be remembered as that good person.”