By Christine Bryant
As a self-described young, rambunctious Catholic kid, Jeffrey Happ was your typical senior – ready to enjoy each day of his final year in high school before heading off to college at Miami University.
He didn’t necessarily think of himself as a leader then. A member of the school football and wrestling teams, he enjoyed stepping up to the challenges that came with these competitive sports. But he often saw himself as any other student would – ready for fun at a moment’s notice.
Others did see him as a leader, however, even when that got in the way of a little fun.
Happ recalls one instance, in particular, when Joe Palazzo, a Bishop Ready graduate and guidance counselor at the time, stopped him in the hall and asked him to step into the office of teacher and priest Colby Grimes.
“They said the word around the school was that there was going to be a food fight,” Happ said. “I knew all about it, was going to be the center of it and couldn’t wait.”
The educators convinced Happ to call it off, however, reminding him that he was a leader in the senior class and had influence over the other students.
“Can you imagine? I brought in extra money for the milk. I was looking forward to it, and then all of a sudden I have to stand down,” Happ said. “I didn’t want to be a leader in that moment, but then I had to step up and make sure everyone had to stand down.”
About a year ago, Happ saw Palazzo at the funeral of late-football coach Paul Nestor, and Happ says Palazzo remembered that day during the 1983-1984 school year as if it happened yesterday.
“We started talking about that day, and he remembered it exactly,” Happ said. “He said, ‘Jeff, you were a leader whether you think of it like that or not.’”
Fast forward nearly 40 years from the day that the epic food fight was supposed to take place, and Happ is once again taking on new leadership duties – this time, though, far more reaching than the walls of the high school cafeteria.
In February, Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther appointed Happ as the new fire chief for the city of Columbus.
A 1984 graduate of Bishop Ready High School, Happ is a 27-year Columbus Division of Fire veteran who worked his way through the ranks. After becoming a firefighter in 1993, he later served as a lieutenant, captain and battalion chief. He is also a Certified Ohio Peace Officer Trainer for Homeland Security in bombs, explosives and incendiary devices.
“I’m extremely passionate about the fact that I can work in my hometown, where my roots are and that my kids grew up here,” Happ said.
One of his goals is to increase the number of women and racial minorities within the fire department and to create a more inclusive environment.
“Our diversity numbers were down below 10 percent,” he said. “My goal in the next five to 10 years is to get it closer to at least 30 percent.”
In the two fire academy classes he has overseen since becoming interim fire chief in May of last year, that number has climbed to about 12 percent, he said.
Happ says he also wants to place a greater emphasis on mental and physical wellness for all first responders.
“My goal is to increase mental and physical wellness opportunities so that when we do retire, the trauma that we have seen over the years doesn’t destroy our quality of life,” he said.
Happ says he also wants to continue to develop leadership training so once existing officers get promoted, they go through recurring training each year.
“This brings fresh new looks to all of our leadership and allows them to be constantly aware of the ever-changing world so we can keep up with it,” he said.
In his role as fire chief, Happ says his greatest inspiration comes from lessons he learned from his family as a child and those who influenced him during his time at Bishop Ready High School. He also often refers to his favorite scriptures, Matthew 22, verses 37-39, that say to “love thy neighbor” and to love God “with all thy heart.”
“Show value in each and every person you meet,” he says. “People need you and they trust you. Show great value to that person.”