They came to Lincoln from California’s Central Valley – Fresno to be precise. Fresno ... surrounded by farmland, not too far from Yosemite National Park, a couple of hours from the Pacific, almost equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
So, just what was it that brought Mike and Erica Despain to Lincoln, Nebraska? Mike Despain is the chief of Lincoln Fire and Rescue.
“I’d gotten to a point in my career when it was time for a change,” Despain said. “The City of Lincoln offered me the job, but I left it up to Erica to decide. She said, ‘Let’s give the Midwest a try,’ so we did.”
“I actually have roots in Nebraska,” added Erica. “My grandfather was in the dairy business in Wahoo. He attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”
But there’s an interesting twist to the decision to move to Lincoln.
“Our daughter Rachel came with us for the interview,” noted Erica. “She was in college, and we wanted her to visit UNL. When we met at the hotel at the end of the day, she sat on the end of the bed and said, ‘Let’s explore the pros and cons. I’m coming to school here, so you guys might as well move here with me.’”
So they did, and that was more than two years ago.
Rachel is now a graduate student at Doane, having completed a degree at UNL. Mike is busy with his job as chief of Lincoln Fire and Rescue, and Erica is enjoying her life as a repatriated Nebraskan. Well, not exactly repatriated, but there is that family connection.
“We’ve gotten to know our neighbors, and I think we’re closer to them than we were in our neighborhood in Fresno,” said Mike. “I love it here. The people are so friendly,” added Erica. “I’ll be walking our dog, and people will just stop and talk with me. It’s helped me make lots of friends.”
The Despains participated in the Leadership Lincoln Executive Series in 2017-18.
“Leadership Lincoln was the perfect way for us to learn about Lincoln, to meet people, to find out how we could get involved,” noted Erica.
And they each have gotten involved. Erica has a TeamMate at Zeman Elementary School. Mike’s involved with The Bridge, a behavioral health organization. All three are active in their church. “Part of the desire to volunteer is that it’s just part of the culture of Lincoln,” said Erica.
“I’ve been so impressed with the men and women who make up Lincoln Fire and Rescue,” said Mike. “They’re good people, honorable, hard working.”
When I quipped that the new fire trucks might contribute to that attitude, he was quick to note that the staff’s dedication goes far deeper than having a new truck. In fact, as he pointed out, their dedication is in spite of the fact that they have an equipment breakdown almost every day.
Another factor that has contributed to their love of Lincoln is the relationship that’s developed between the Despains and Lincoln’s chief of police, Jeff Bliemeister, and his wife Roni.
“Jeff and I work well together,” noted Mike. “And our teams work well together.” Erica quickly added, “I’ve gotten to know Roni because we both volunteer at Zeman. That’s just how Lincoln is.”
One of Mike’s talents is his ability to make decisions based on data. When deciding how to staff the city’s new fire and rescue stations, he pointed out that keeping units in central Lincoln and staffing the new stations with new crews would actually help lower insurance rates for Lincoln residents. And, he’s studied the somewhat controversial issue of sending a Fire and Rescue unit along with an ambulance on calls.
“The Fire and Rescue unit can arrive at a home in 3 to 4 minutes, and it often takes an ambulance 7 to 8 minutes. I think it’s worth the extra $5 in diesel fuel to save a life,” he pointed out.
Mike and Erica Despain love to show off their new hometown. Their son Jerad, his wife and children have been here to visit, other family members have visited and Mike entertains other fire chiefs from around the country as well.
Lincoln is a hidden gem, they both agreed. As we concluded our time together, I noted that this Indiana native adopted Lincoln, Nebraska, after just three years. The Despains are approaching their third year in Lincoln. I think they’re putting down deep roots.