By ERIKA TOWNE
You can hear it coming before you see it. The long, low wail of a siren announces the arrival of the cherry red, 1954 Chevrolet firetruck. Its single dome light spins, adding to the effect as it rolls down the streets of Gresham. By now, many people in town knows what that sound means.
For the past 15 months, the pandemic has forced everyone inside, but not Brad Roe. When Oregon’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” order went into effect, Roe realized that there was a gaping need in his community. He had an idea of how to fill it.
“A friend of ours created the [Gresham Helping Gresham Facebook] group 15 months ago. I saw the group, and I said to my wife, Jane, I said, ‘Why don’t you put out there that I would do drive by birthdays. Because of COVID, people can’t have the normal birthdays like they used to, so, how about if you do that?’” said Roe. “So, she posted the picture, under her name, my name. The first day, we had 20 booked appointments.”
“We’re kind of a small community. The word is out there, and everybody makes a comment about it,” said Jan Weston, CFO of Weston Buick-GMC-Kia. “We’ve been in front of probably almost everybody in town at least once or twice with this. It’s pretty amazing.”
Journey to Gresham
While Roe has made Gresham his home over the past three decades, it was happenstance that he arrived here to begin with. He grew up more than 2,100 miles away in the city of Sault Ste Marie, Mich.
“It’s in northern, northern Michigan. Our house was less than a mile from the Canadian duty station. You average 12 to 15 feet of snow every year…very cold,” said Roe.
His father was also in the car business.
“He bought his first dealership in 1967 in the Soo, [that’s what they call] Sault Ste Marie. We owned it. He raised our family,” said Roe.
From a young age, Roe worked alongside his dad at the dealership.
“I started working for my dad’s dealership in Michigan in 1976 when I was 13,” said Roe. “I started washing cars. Then I did oil changes in the service department.”
When Roe and his twin sister Lori graduated from high school, his dad sold the dealership.
“He decided to sell the dealership because it was just a lot of work. Downtown location. Moving all that snow. It was a lot of work,” said Roe. “He decided to drive around the United States. He drove 30,000 miles in one year. He finally found a dealership in Grants Pass, Oregon. Southern Oregon. So, he bought the dealership there.”
Roe and the rest of the family followed. Roe’s older brother and his twin sister went to work at their dad’s dealership in Grants Pass while Roe set out on a different path. In March of 1987, he joined Weston Buick GMC in Gresham.
“His family is in the car business in one way or another, going back to his grandfather who worked for GM. We were happy to get him here as a young man. He picked us,” said Weston, whose father hired Roe out of college. “His older brother and his twin sister operate another dealership in Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s a small town; small dealership. There really wasn’t room for three of them. So, he kind of made his career and carved his niche here with us, and we’re happy that he did.”
For more than 34 years, Roe has worked with the Weston family.
“He’s a people person. He loves people. That’s what the car business is,” said Weston. “My dad used to say, ‘We’re not in the car business; we’re in the people business.’ Brad, he’s that guy. He just knows how to get close to people and become their friend, sincerely.”
Lessons in Life
Aside from cars, Roe credits his dad with teaching him the most valuable lesson of all: giving back.
“[My dad] would run a dealership, have 30-some employees normally. After he got to the dealership, [he would] sign some checks and all that, then he’d go volunteer at the community,” said Roe. “He’d be gone for three or four hours. Then he’d come back and sign some more checks and talk to some more customers.”
“Then he’d close it out at six o’clock. At seven o’clock, he’d have a meeting because he’s starting something else in the community, and he had to go to a city council meeting,” continued Roe.
Roe says that even though his dad passed away in 2019, it was his dad who gave him the idea for drive-by birthdays.
“A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Brad, where did you come up with this idea?’ I go, ‘I got it from my dad after he passed away.’ Because he has always been with me,” said Roe. “When he passed, this opportunity came up [because of] COVID, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s something my dad would do for sure.’”
Marsha Ewing knew of Roe’s father and she is not surprised that he has followed in his community service footsteps. “I’m not surprised that Brad Roe and wife, Jane, are doing something positive for the people of Gresham with the fire truck birthday visits. Brad is following in the footsteps of his dad, Ross Roe, who spent a lifetime helping the communities where he lived. Mr. Roe owned a Chevy dealership in my hometown and my dad worked for him for several years. I can see that Brad is carrying on his dad’s tradition of helping others for the sake of helping. You’re lucky to have him in your community,” said Ewing.
Drive By Birthdays
“We’ve [Weston Buick GMC] had this fire truck for seven years. I’ve been in Teddy Bear parades and 4th of July parades, and different cities. So, we have the truck on display,” said Roe. “When we [started doing drive-by Birthdays], we didn’t know, we [thought we] might have like one or two. But then there were 20 booked appointments the first day. We’re thinking, ‘Wow, what a vacuum effect. It just shows you that people are so used to having normal birthdays.’ So, this is like, ‘Wow, what did we get ourselves into?’”
“I went to the owner. He’s really easygoing, and I said, ‘Hey, do you mind if I do drive-by birthdays using the fire truck?’ He said, ‘No problem,’” said Roe.
“Everybody thought it would be something we do, like five or ten runs, and then we go on to something else. But this has caught on. It’s amazing,” said Weston.
Word spread quickly, and it wasn’t just in Gresham. Roe found himself traveling further and further to help someone celebrate their special day. At first, he was showing up for kids, but then that changed as well.
“Then, in the summer, I had started getting requests for older people. Like 80, 90, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104,” said Roe. “I remember last summer; it was 102 degrees out. It was a Saturday. I drive this truck [and it] has no air conditioning. So, I’m driving down to Clackamas, Oregon. [The lady] was turning 104. I couldn’t miss it.”
Roe started posting photos of his trips to senior birthday parties, and soon, the requests started pouring in.
The truck is emblazoned with a sign, “Gresham Helping Gresham.” The slogan is the name of a Facebook Group started by Gresham city councilor Sue Piazza to meet needs and foster a greater sense of community in the city. Roe and the Westons have picked up on that spirit.
A Slew of Memories
For Roe, the journey he takes with his fire truck is all about creating memories.
“I’m showing up with a fire truck…with lights and siren on. People love when I pull up,” said Roe. “Then I give away plastic firetruck hats. I just bought a couple hundred more.”
The memories aren’t just for the people he visits, but for himself as well. Every trip he takes in the fire truck is a new memory and a new story.
“The little boy yesterday, who turned six, he says, ‘Is there any way you can get on the fire truck with me?’,” recalled Roe. “All the grandparents are there, so I’m having fun in front of everybody. I say, ‘Well, can you tell me why you want me to be on top of the fire truck with you?’ He goes, ‘Yes. So, you don’t leave.’ He says, ‘You’re not leaving. You’re not leaving.’ He told me that about six times.”
It doesn’t matter what age the birthday boy or girl is turning; Roe’s entire purpose is to make that birthday a memorable one.
“[There was] one on Sunday. This was like, three, four months ago… a half-hour away. I said no problem at all. She turned 100 that day,” said Roe. “When I get there, I’m first in the parade. It’s a drive by parade, and there’s 30 cars in between, and then this big boy, a new fire truck from the city of Portland’s there. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ So, I get there, and we take pictures, and she says, ‘I didn’t tell you how much this means to my grandmother.’…Her dad died when she was seven as a firefighter in the line of duty. So, to have a vintage firetruck show up on her 100th birthday where her dad died 93 years earlier, she was in tears because it just meant so much.”
A huge difference
Community members say his visits have made a huge difference.
“I have had Brad come by my house, not for just one of my kids’ birthdays, but both of them. They had so much fun with the fire truck,” said Jessica Currier. “They were so surprised when they heard it coming down our street just for them. Brad makes it fun for all by playing music on the fire truck and giving out free toy fire hats. Brad truly made each of my kids’ birthday special, especially when we were all going through this very hard time.”
Sarah Lewis wanted to make her father’s 80th birthday extra special, so she pulled out all the stops, including a drive by visit from Roe and the fire truck.
“My dad loved how special he felt having so many come and celebrate him. Since it was a surprise drive-by parade for him, I’d told him that my kids just had a surprise for him outside. He came out the door and saw a long line of cars with a fire truck at the end and looked at me and said with so much emotion, ‘What did you do, Sarah?’,” said Lewis.
“He was so touched and was able to see fellow teachers he worked alongside from Sweetbriar Elementary school, other musicians from the LDS Symphony, and other local friends and family,” continued Lewis. “Having Brad come was the added cherry on top. It was the perfect ending to the parade. We were able to get pictures by the fire truck, and my little boys couldn’t believe ‘it was a real live fire truck.’ I think my dad was a bit in shock that the whole thing happened and how much love he felt.”
Lewis and her family were so happy, they asked Roe to visit during her kids’ birthdays and even helped friends arrange fire truck visits of their own.
Ashley Persing added this note of praise on Facebook, “Want to give Mr. Brad Roe a huge ‘thank you’ tonight for surprising my niece with the beautiful fire truck and lights tonight! Brad you truly are the hero of Gresham making birthday’s and events special and bringing so much joy to our town ! We all appreciate you so much!”
Nearly 300 celebrations
To date, Roe has visited nearly 300 birthday celebrations. He works hard to make sure each one is special. During the holidays, he added a Christmas tree and lights for an added flare.
“We lit up the fire truck with Christmas lights. I could change colors from purple to red to green to white and all that with my phone,” said Roe. “Then we put speakers on there. So, we played Christmas music.”
Roe makes sure to cater each visit to the birthday boy or girl. He plays happy birthday and other music on request.
“Another 100-year-old, I said, ‘What kind of music does she like?’ They said, ‘Well, it’s music from the 50s. I don’t think you have that.’ I said, ‘Well, I actually have something called the internet.’ They laughed. So, we played 50s music,” said Roe. “I had the son dancing on the driveway. The music was going, a couple of these 80-year-old people dancing in the driveway. It was so much fun.”
Sharing the Love
Even though the COVID closures are nearing an end, Roe isn’t ready to stop. In fact, he’s gearing up to do more. The Weston dealership recently bought a 1953 fire truck to help out. “We’re going to paint it red, and we’re going to paint the wheels, and we got new tires,” said Roe. “We’re putting brakes on it. The only thing we don’t have is the second driver… It’s a heavier duty fire truck… So, it’s going to look so awesome when done.”
Roe’s excited for what this truck can mean for future birthday parties. “So, sometimes we’re going to go down the street with two vintage fire trucks, a ’53 and a ’54,” said Roe. “When they’re both painted red—they both have the same siren—we’re going to be coming down the street for your daughter, your son who’s three or four or eight. And here’s two trucks coming for them. It’s really cool.”
Service to the Community
Roe never takes money from the people he visits. He drives the truck on his days off from work, and he gets help from his friends.
“So, I had a friend of ours that has worked with our company. He does pin-striping and paints. He donated the signs on the side of the truck,” said Roe.
Jan Weston says he’s happy to do whatever he can to keep things going for the community.
“We’re all for it. We say whatever [Brad] needs; we give it to him. We give away firemen hats. We have to fix the fire truck once in a while. That’s all part of the deal. We can take care of whatever he wants. We got to keep going; keep him doing it,” said Weston.
For both Brad Roe and Jan Weston, the best payment of all is the smiles they receive during each run in the truck.
“It’s just fun to see how much people love this type of thing. To see people smiling and waving. We’re surrounded by so much negativity. These runs are completely positive. It’s all about seeing people happy. This really does a lot of good,” said Weston.
“If you sat in there, you’d see the red hood, and you’d see the chrome siren that’s on the left front fender,” said Roe. “What I see is hope, encouragement and joy, and fun. Because when I pull up to the house, I see the parents and neighbors of the birthday person. I see this big smile. I come in with a loud siren on purpose because if you’re giving some birthday drive by, we’re making a big splash. That’s what they want. I don’t let them down with all those sirens. It just makes people smile.” HVN