We Are Wes is a collection of stories about the people who make Wesleyan Athletics special. The first feature focuses on Brian O'Rourke and his connection to Wesleyan Athletics.
On the corner of Main Street in a small Connecticut city sits an unassuming tin-roofed diner car. There is a small green and orange strip of neon lights that wraps around the upper third of the cozy structure, and a giant black banner out front that reads, “Go Wes.” Standing outside of the establishment, you can peer down the street and see the hustle and bustle of everyday life, before entering into the quaint restaurant for a hot cup of coffee and some serenity.
Chances are, if you are a local resident, you have eaten here before; perhaps it was as a kid when your father took you before a big day of fishing on the Farmington River, or maybe it was your go-to spot as a student at the local university. Whatever the reason for being introduced to O’Rourke’s Diner, once you have stepped inside, you will return time and time again. But it isn’t just the food that keeps folks coming back. It is the owner of the establishment, whose big smile and generous heart are things that are tough to stay away from.
Brian O’Rourke was born in 1951, “on the day Bobby Thomson hit The Shot Heard ‘Round The World,’” as he likes to recall. Brian grew up in a house on College Street, and as the middle child of five, he shared a bedroom with his three brothers. Growing up in a family of seven, Brian began working at a young age at his uncle John J. O’Rourke’s diner. A typical day for Brian began at 3:00 a.m., when he would head out to deliver over 500 newspapers before school started. After school, Brian would go work at the diner, before making extra money by running coffee in the early hours of the morning to over 200 men playing poker around town. One of his earliest memories of Wesleyan University, would come every day at the end of his paper route. The last house every morning was a fraternity on Wesleyan’s campus, and the house chef would have breakfast waiting for Brian before he headed off to school.
Brian’s connection with Wesleyan Athletics, however, began when he was just five years old. His father Bernie, known to many as “Mr. Middletown Sports,” was an active member of the sports community, serving as a sports writer and editor for the Middletown Press, before being named the Director of Parks and Recreation. Credited with bringing Little League to Connecticut, his father was actively involved in officiating college sports, and it was through this connection that Brian began his lifelong relationship with the athletic department at Wesleyan.
Brian's father, Bernie (Photo by The Russell Manufacturing Co.).
It all started with Brian helping out at Wesleyan soccer games. While his father was officiating, Brian could be found chasing down balls on the sidelines, helping to ensure the game ran smoothly. Before too long, his duties as the soccer ball boy morphed into the spring season, as he helped warm up pitchers before baseball games. Brian’s childhood became intertwined with Wesleyan Athletics and he became a staple at many sporting events.
When his uncle retired in 1977, Brian and his cousin took over O’Rourke’s Diner. For the next 29 years, the diner became so much more than a place to eat. Brian’s love of connecting with people made it a place where everyone felt welcome. On different mornings of the week, Brian and his staff would serve groups of regular diners. Every Friday morning, the Director of Athletics at the time, John Biddiscombe, and three other colleagues would come in for breakfast. Brian would welcome them with special treats, always having their favorite booth reserved. Then there were the athletes who would bring their parents in to meet Brian and show off their favorite place to grab breakfast. It became a place of community, one where even students living across the world from their families felt at home when they walked through the doors and were greeted by Brian’s smile.
Brian working in the kitchen at O'Rourke's.
Unfortunately, this place that brought so many people together by Brian’s generosity, was decimated by a fire in 2006. Biddiscombe recalls going down to the site as the fire raged, “Even as his diner was burning down, Brian stood across the street with me and tried to take away a positive outlook. That’s just how he was.”
As the two watched the firefighters put out the blaze John assured Brian, “We will do everything we can to resurrect this place. This is more than just a place to eat, this is a second home to many Wesleyan students.”
After the fire, a committee was formed with Wesleyan faculty, staff and alumni, all of whom felt strongly about helping Brian get back on his feet, giving something back to someone who gave so much to the University. The group was focused on connecting Brian with people who could help him financially, and the outpouring of support exemplified how much O’Rourke’s meant to the entire Middletown community. While the committee was busy organizing fundraisers, Wesleyan employed Brian to work as a chef at Wes Wings on campus, where he continued connecting with students and doing what he loved. At the time, the University was going through renovations to a new dining hall, which allowed them to donate all of the old equipment, including booths, to Brian.
It could not have been more fitting to outfit the new diner with booths that once were used on campus to gather Wesleyan students.
Since the diner reopened its doors in 2007, Brian’s relationship with Wesleyan Athletics has grown stronger. He has become deeply committed to getting to know as many athletes as he can, and not just their names, but their hometowns and stories. Brian makes an effort to get to as many sporting events as possible, and there are a few teams and athletes he has formed special connections with over the years. The squash program has been a team that Brian has grown close to throughout the last several seasons. He attends their practices and matches, and occasionally Head Coach Shona Kerr will call on him for some “dinerology” words of wisdom.
She recalls one recent pep talk to the team, “If you want soup, you can either have it in a can and heat it up, or you can make it from scratch and put everything into it. So, everything is like soup, what you put in is what you get out.”