After more than 25 years of public service, longtime fire chief Benjamin Wozney is retiring from the Wilmette Fire Department.
Wilmette’s Village Board approved a resolution honoring Wozney at its Tuesday, Feb. 9 meeting, thanking him for his dedicated career of service and the lasting impact he will leave on the village.
Wozney served in multiple roles throughout his 26 years with the department, including as firefighter/paramedic, lieutenant/paramedic, duty chief and deputy chief before being named fire chief.
He has also served on the technical rescue and underwater rescue teams, eventually becoming a dive master for Wilmette and director of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System Division 3 Water Rescue Team.
Wozney said he became a firefighter after he was working as a lifeguard at the beach. He befriended some off-duty firefighters who told him that he’d make a good candidate.
Wozney took the test and was hired on the Wilmette Fire Department.
He praised the firefighters and paramedics in the fire department, especially for their efforts amid COVID-19.
“(I have) nothing but gratitude and respect for everything they do every day,” Wozney said. “When the pandemic hit, they never missed a beat. Never stayed home, constantly responded to all the calls, never complained. So I really appreciate everything they did in the service to our community. And you are in good hands because they will continue to do that as well.”
Wozney took a moment to thank his wife and daughters for supporting him. He recalled a strong storm that hit Wilmette in August 2007, knocking out power across the village for several days, including in his own home for four days.
Because of the emergency, he had to work for three days straight, all while his wife was days away from giving birth to their youngest daughter.
“(She spent) three days making sure the generator was filled with gas to keep the house up and running,” Wozney said. “Never complained once about that. Very rarely complained when I’d have to leave the house in the middle of the night, or leave dinner, or not be able to go on a trip because of work, so I thank her a great deal and both of my daughters.”
The village trustees took turns sharing stories about and kind words for Wozny.
Trustee Joel Kurzman, who heads the village’s Public Safety Committee, said the first time he met Wozney, it was clear that the community respected him.
“I was newly elected and not so comfortable in my chair when I was assigned to Public Safety, and my first meeting was with you and a room full of very concerned citizens concerned about high-rise fire safety,” he said. “And that was my introduction to board service. You kept your head under pressure so amazingly well and I felt really comfortable working with you from the start in that difficult, difficult circumstance, and your calm demeanor and your thorough preparation was evident and I could tell the residents thoroughly respect it.”
Trustee Kathy Dodd said the first time she met Wozney was as a private citizen, when a family medical issue required a 911 call.
Wozney was one of the firefighters who responded to the call.
“From the times I’ve met you through the rest of your career here, I’ve been so appreciative of all the work you’ve done on behalf of the village,” Dodd said. “I’m so appreciative of our fire department on a personal level, given the issues that I’ve experienced with my own daughter, but then obviously having the opportunity to work with you on a more professional level as a trustee.”
Trustee Daniel Sullivan also met Wozney in a personal setting when both were coaching their children in basketball.
“You’ve done great work,” he said. “You’ve really made an impact in 26 years, and not many people can say that about their career, and you’ve really made a lasting impression on Wilmette. You had a tough job coming in from the chiefs before you who have built a phenomenal leading fire department, and you’re also lucky to say you’re leaving it in a better place.”
Trustee Senta Plunkett praised Wozney’s recent work with getting the COVID-19 vaccine ready to be distributed in Wilmette.
“I know how much you have worked recently to be able to get our firefighters/paramedics on the front lines with vaccines, and it was so creative of you, and I’m sad that you won’t be here to see that happen, but you will be near and I’m hoping that’s going to happen soon,” she said. “We just really appreciate that work and that collaboration you have done recently with our neighboring communities to try to make that happen.”
Wozny is looking forward to spending his retirement with his family.
“We’ve missed a lot with this job,” he said. “They’re the true heroes, the ones that are at home supporting us.”
He thanked the board and staff for their comments:
“It’s been my honor to serve this village for 25 years.”
Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.