Bob VanSumeren (right) spoke for a StoryCorps interview this month about how, with Mike McKenney's (left) support, he was

able to turn his life around — from felon to lawyer. Courtesy of Mike McKenney and Bob VanSumeren for StoryCorps hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Mike McKenney and Bob VanSumeren for StoryCorps

Bob VanSumeren (right) spoke for a StoryCorps interview this month about how, with Mike McKenney's (left) support, he was able to turn his life around — from felon to lawyer.

Courtesy of Mike McKenney and Bob VanSumeren for StoryCorps

During the 1990s, in the tiny town of Parma, Mich., Bob VanSumeren lost his way.

He dropped out of high school and started abusing drugs and alcohol. When Bob turned 18, his parents got a divorce and he became essentially homeless, mostly couch-surfing at friends' houses. It was around this time that he and his high school sweetheart, Jillian, broke up. Bob had fallen in with the wrong crowd.

Eventually, Bob robbed a gas station and a bank. He served nearly six years in prison for those crimes.

But there were two people who never gave up on him: Jillian's parents, Mike and Becky McKenney.

Bob, now 41, spoke with Mike, 65, for a remote StoryCorps interview last week, looking back on how, with the McKenneys' support, Bob turned his life around and became a lawyer.

Not long after Bob entered prison in 1999, Mike, Becky and Jillian began writing and visiting him.

"Why did you reach out to me after I was arrested?" Bob asked Mike.

"Well, we just couldn't let you do it alone," Mike told him.

They remained his most consistent support, visiting him nearly once a month during his incarceration.

"Your visits kept me from sinking fully into prison," Bob said. "They were like coming up out of the bottomless pit for a minute."

Mike and Becky's visits became less frequent when Bob was transferred to a facility in northern Michigan, about a 10-hour drive from the McKenneys.

Mike recalled a crossing a bridge on a foggy drive home after one of those visits. It struck him as symbolic.

"I don't know if I have ever seen fog as thick as that. It was like a wall on each side of the bridge," he said. "When we got to the other side, it was like, changed from one world to the next. And I thought When Bob gets to the other side, he's going to be OK. And you were."

When Bob was released in 2005, the McKenneys picked him up and took him to Denny's for his first meal since leaving prison.

"Everybody ordered, and when your turn came, it was like you froze. You couldn't order anything," Mike said. "You had not been given a choice for six years. All of a sudden to have this freedom, what do you do with it?"

It was a lot to take in at once, as Bob remembered.

"It feels like the world is just coming rushing at you like a freight train," he said.

"Well, you don't have to experience that freight train all by yourself," Mike told him. "There are people who become like a shock absorber for that freight train."

After his release, Bob lived with the McKenneys. They helped him transition back to the real world from prison, encouraging him to pursue a college education and, eventually, law school.

Left photo: Becky McKenney, left, and Mike McKenney, right, visit Bob VanSumeren while he was incarcerated. The couple are parents to Bob's former girlfriend, Jillian, who has also remained close to Bob. Right photo: Becky, Bob and Mike on the day that Bob was sworn in as an attorney. Courtesy of Bob VanSumeren hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Bob VanSumeren

Left photo: Becky McKenney, left, and Mike McKenney, right, visit Bob VanSumeren while he was incarcerated. The couple are parents to Bob's former girlfriend, Jillian, who has also remained close to Bob. Right photo: Becky, Bob and Mike on the day that Bob was sworn in as an attorney.

Courtesy of Bob VanSumeren

"You guys helped me learn I'm OK, I can join the humans," he said. "And then you started talking to me about college. No one else had expected that from me."

Last November, Bob was sworn in as a lawyer by the same judge that sentenced him, after making the request that that judge preside over the ceremony.

"I remember how proud we were of you when you were being sworn in," Mike said. "Do you think about Bob as a felon anymore? Or do you think [of] Bob as the lawyer — or how do you think of yourself?"

" 'Bob the licensed attorney' has been quite a counterweight to it," Bob said. "But, yeah, the two felonies — they're still very strong. I've never run away, I don't think, from my story. The past, the felonies, the prison, that's a part of it. I just hope eventually that I do other things to matter more. I don't want my gravestone to say: The ex-felon who became a lawyer," he joked.

"Well, there's going to be a lot more to it than that," Mike told him.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jey Born. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Pin it

NorCal News

National News

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.