StoryCorps: Finding Support On Road From Prison To Law School Bob VanSumeren served nearly six years in prison for robbery. But Mike McKenney, his ex-girlfriend's dad, never gave up on him. "Your visits kept me from sinking fully into prison," VanSumeren said.
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A High School Dropout Finds Support On Road From Prison To Law School

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A High School Dropout Finds Support On Road From Prison To Law School

A High School Dropout Finds Support On Road From Prison To Law School

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. In the 1990s in the tiny town of Parma, Mich., Bob VanSumeren dropped out of high school and he started drinking. He ended up robbing a gas station and a bank. He served six years in prison for those crimes. But there were two people who never gave up on him, Mike and Becky McKenney. They were the parents of his former high school sweetheart. Bob recently talked with Mike over StoryCorps Connect.

BOB VANSUMEREN: The summer that I turned 18, I found myself without a place to stay.

MIKE MCKENNEY: I remember you were living in a field for a while. There was a night that we went out in the car looking for you, went all over the place, and never did find you.

VANSUMEREN: Why did you reach out to me after I was arrested?

MCKENNEY: Well, we just couldn't let you do it alone.

VANSUMEREN: Your visits kept me from sinking fully into prison. They were like coming up out of the bottomless pit for a minute.

MCKENNEY: Yeah. We did it just about monthly for six years. When you were up in northern Michigan, it was 10 hours away. On the way home, we were crossing Mackinac Bridge. And 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. And 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 (laughter).

VANSUMEREN: Yeah. What do you remember about the day I was released?

MCKENNEY: We were going to come and pick you up and take you to Denny's. Everybody ordered. And when your turn came, it was like you froze. You couldn't order anything. You had not been given a choice for six years. All of a sudden to have this freedom, what do you do with it?

VANSUMEREN: It feels like the world is just coming rushing at you like a freight train.

MCKENNEY: Well, you don't have to experience that freight train all by yourself. There are people that become like a shock absorber (laughter) for that freight train.

VANSUMEREN: You guys helped me learn I'm OK. I can join the humans, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

VANSUMEREN: And then you started talking to me about college. No one else expected that from me.

MCKENNEY: And you graduate from law school. I remember how proud we were of you when you were being sworn in. Do you think about Bob as a felon anymore? Or do you think Bob as the lawyer? Or how do you think of yourself?

VANSUMEREN: Bob the licensed attorney has been quite a counterweight to it. 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.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKENNEY: Yeah. Well, there's going to be a lot more to it than that.

MARTIN: Mike McKenney with Bob VanSumeren for StoryCorps. Last year, Bob was sworn in as a lawyer by the same judge who sentenced him to prison. Their conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES ATLAS' "PHOTOSPHERE")

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