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We Are wes FEATURE I - BRIAN O'ROURKE

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

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.”

Right before an interview with Brian this year, he spoke to the squash team to get them pumped up for the season. The interview took place outside of the squash center, and as one player walked by Brian, they got to talking. She expressed feeling a little overwhelmed coming into the season, so he offered up some words of encouragement, “Don’t give it what she had, give it what you have!” The two exchanged smiles, she thanked him for the positive reinforcement, and as he walked away he said, “This. This is what I do!”

But, the relationship Brian has with the athletes is not just a one-way street. Last summer when he was recovering from surgery, Kerr helped him rehabilitate with squash. What started out as learning a drop shot in the front of the court, turned into hitting 100+ balls in a row. Flash forward a few months, and his dedication to the team is being returned by squash players helping him to continue getting better and stronger on the court.

No matter what team is playing on any given night, you can find Brian in the stands. He may not be chasing down balls on the sidelines anymore, but he is still very much a staple at all Wesleyan sporting events. Earlier this year, Brian recalls being at a volleyball match. He admitted it wasn’t a sport he had seen a lot of this year, but he ran into a player’s mother who told him, “It is so nice to see someone from the community supporting this team like you do.”

Director of Athletics’ Mike Whalen feels especially grateful to have someone on our sidelines as supportive as Brian, “He is a link in the bridge that connects Wesleyan Athletics to the Middletown community. He goes out of his way to talk about our successes and what we are doing so that the community can embrace our programs and come out to support our student-athletes.”

Outside of athletics, Brian still continues to stay engaged with the greater Wesleyan community. When he talks about the impacts he has made on the lives of students at the University, he lights up the room with his ear-to-ear smile. He remembers back a few years ago when he met a Thai student, Tess, on Move-In Day. He began talking with Tess’ father, who was staying in Middletown for the week until she got settled in. The father of the student started coming into the diner day after day, as Brian and him got to know each other. On the father’s final night, Brian invited him and Tess to dinner at O’Rourke’s. The two arrived, and were shocked to find the place was only open for a private dinner for the three of them. Something that Brian has done time and time again for friends is have private dinner parties after hours because he likes to entertain and make people feel at home. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the father expressed that their doors were always open should he want to visit them in Thailand. The very next year Brian did venture to Thailand, and he continues to stay in contact with the family.

From opening his doors after hours to serve groups of friends for private dinner parties, to hosting the annual athletics’ staff holiday party, Brian welcomes any opportunity he can to connect with the Wesleyan and Middletown communities. To no one’s surprise, O’Rourke’s is always the first place teams choose to host their kick-off dinners or end of season banquets. This winter, men’s ice hockey kick-started their season with a private dinner at the diner. Head Coach Chris Potter explained, “Our guys really enjoy being around him. This is a place all of our players come with their families, and Brian is able to develop close relationships with them. He feels like family.”

The bond Brian has formed with Wesleyan Athletics is truly unique. Says Whalen, “Brian is a people person and he really makes an effort to get to know our student-athletes. Whether he shows up to practices to hit balls or shoot free throws, it resonates with kids and they really appreciate him being there.” Furthermore, Whalen reveals, “When I interview anyone for a head coaching position, I always take them down to the diner as part of the process. When they sit down, Brian will come over and immediately recognize why they are here. What ensues is 20 minutes of essentially Brian interviewing them. At the end of the interview process he will bring me the name of who he thinks is the best fit and why,” he laughs, “Honestly, we have been identical on who we have hired on many searches. He certainly knows people.”

The special bond that the Wesleyan community shares with Brian O’Rourke is one that has been in the making for over 45 years. Biddiscombe explains, “It would be really disappointing if every time you came back on campus, everything was different. All of these memories you have of your time at Wesleyan are based on the physical and emotional part of your experiences, and O’Rourke’s diner and Brian offer a special connection to all of these. It is part of the fabric of your experience at Wesleyan.”

So as the Wesleyan-O’Rourke connection continues growing stronger, we will remind ourselves of Brian’s mantra: “We are only here for a little while, so we might as well make today the best day of our lives.”

Written by: Ali Paquette

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