Blazer Stories

Adding Fuel to the Fire

How alumnus Ryan Neisen used his time at JWCC to kick off a path that led to becoming Hannibal’s Fire Chief.

Recently appointed as the Fire Chief of the Hannibal Fire Department, JWCC alumnus Ryan Neisen has been serving the HFD since 2002. His 20 years of experience have taught him a tremendous amount, and Neisen has also earned a handful of certifications to ensure he is prepared for whatever he may face in the role. But, fire fighting was not always in Neisen’s plans. Though John Wood Community College has one of the most renowned fire science programs in the country, when Neisen attended JWCC, fire fighting was not yet a career he was considering. He landed there after a natural evolution, and credits the community college for helping to build a foundation for many of the opportunities he has had.

In 1994, Ryan Neisen enrolled at John Wood Community College with the idea of becoming a teacher. He was recruited to play basketball for the school by then Athletic Director & Coach, now current President, Mike Elbe.

“He was a quiet kid. I wasn’t sure he was even going to sign with us until I got a letter from him in the mail,” remembers Elbe.  “But oh man, on the court, he was a different person.”

To Neisen, the choice to enroll at John Wood Community College made sense. He used his time at JWCC to get acclimated to the collegiate environment, as well as to see what career choice was right for him.

“I didn’t know a whole lot about John Wood when the recruitment process started, but I really liked Coach Elbe and I liked the way the program was going so I decided to attend school there. I didn’t know what I wanted to get into when I got to John Wood. I thought I probably wanted to a PE coach or a teacher,” said Neisen. “Later in college I decided that wasn’t the path for me. That’s the great thing about college, you get to try some different things and find your career path.”

The benefits from his time at JWCC extended far beyond the classroom. Neisen has fond memories of his time at the college and the foundation he built while attending school here.

“John Wood is a special place for me because it gave me the opportunity to meet people. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but I was unintentionally networking. I have friends that work for DOT Foods and the City of Quincy and all these different entities…these are all people that I met at John Wood. The guys that I play golf with every week are friends and teammates from John Wood. I stay in close contact with Coach Hoyt. We were teammates back then.

“The community of the community college is I think that’s what makes JWCC different. I tell people all the time that John Wood is a unique place. I don’t think that most two-year colleges have that family environment that John Wood does. Still to this day, when I walk on campus, I see faces that I used to see when I was a student there 25 years ago. You go to a basketball game and the same people are in the stands that were there 25 years ago. Obviously, when I played there, we went on the road and played other schools and I can say those schools aren’t the same as John Wood. It’s a special place to me where I have me a lot of special people in my life and I am very proud to say I am a John Wood alum.”

After graduating from JWCC, Neisen went on to attend Columbia College where he switched majors to criminal justice. From there, he was hired as a police officer in Hannibal, holding that position for about two years. After gaining experience there, Neisen made the decision to move to the fire department.

“There is overlap with the characteristics needed for most emergency services jobs. I think most police officers could be firemen and vice versa. We are all kind of wired the same and think along the same lines a lot of times. You see a lot of jokes, firemen teasing police officers and vice versa, but it’s all in good fun. We have fun with it here locally. There is comradery, not only between PD and FD, but all emergency services: dispatch, EMS, ambulance, any of those type of services.”

Luckily for Chief Neisen, though he didn’t complete John Wood’s Fire Science program, his department still gets to benefit from it.

“We have several employees who have been through JWCC’s fire science program. It’s very common. We are getting ready to go through a hiring pool right now and several prospects to get hired are from the program. I would say 6-10 off the top of my head of our employees who have been through the program. It’s very common for us to see that.”

Neisen also believes that the fire science program is beneficial to its students, preparing them for a profession that can be full of surprises.

“JWCC’s Fire Science program gives you a basic understanding of the fire service and kind of what to expect. Every Fire Department is a little bit different, we don’t all do things exactly the same way, but the program gives students an idea of what to expect when they begin their career. Chief Bentley does a great job with the program and with his students. We are always in contact with him, asking him about the guys going through the class and things like that. I think the fire science program is definitely beneficial to our community.”

And the fond feelings of recollection are mutual. Neisen is still fondly remembered on campus too.

“Ryan was one of the fiercest competitors I have ever coached,” said President Mike Elbe. “When he was on my team, we had back-to-back outstanding seasons. I always knew I could count on him in a crunch, almost more than any player I have coached.”