Hi Mike, My Name is Tom
When you volunteer at the Ohio State Reformatory, bumping into former inmates or former guards is icing on the cake. It happens but its almost like a Cleveland Browns win, its when you least expect it (and I’m saying this as a Brows fan). You might be leading a tour or pushing for someone’s and another volunteer will come up to you and tell you about someone they met after the tour outside who was a former prisoner and the stories they told you. It’s unfortunate that you missed it, but it but it happens.
If you get a chance to visit OSR and you look around each part of the prison, there’s chi-asks at different levels where you can have some video interaction of the history, Hollywood movies, the paranormal, or inmate/guard stories. When I started volunteering I really enjoyed the former inmate/guard stories. I watched Ike Webb tell stories of inmates and escape attempts, how inmates would cook in their cells or funny stories of inmates receiving visitors from home. There was one particular story that I really enjoyed regarding a former prisoner at from 1968-1970 and was pardoned by Bob Taft in 2004. I must have watched that video every time I walked into OSR and walked into the Central Guard Room last summer.
During the summer of 2012 I was at the Reformatory on a Saturday just walking around and there was a ghost hunt that night so I decided to stay the whole day. When I was there I was with Diane, her son Ryan, Eric and Kristen. They were in the hallway down the steps from the Central Guard Room when I saw them surrounding someone almost like he was a celebrity just taking questions from the audience. He was wearing sunglasses, jeans and his OSR Volunteer Shirt. I never met him before and I didn’t know if he was a veteran volunteer and I was just the new guy who wasn’t introduced to him yet.
When I walked up to him he was telling stories and I was mesmerized at how he held the group speechless. Verbally he had them in the palm of his hand. Afterwards I introduced myself to him and said “Hi Mike, my name is Tom. I’m a new volunteer. Nice to meet you.” When he shook my hand he said “Hi, I’m Mike. You know I’m a former inmate here. I was locked up here from 1968 to 1970 and was pardoned in 2004. So give me your cell phone, your car keys, your wallet, and any change you have too. And put it on the table.” I was totally caught off guard and just stood silent and surprised. Talk about awkward silence. Everyone just laughed. Then I realized it was the same guy that I had been watching on that chi-asks in the Central Guard Room, only now he was wearing Ray-Bans. Afterwards Mike was hanging out downstairs in the Bullpen and he just took question after question from all of us. We were like children and it was story time.
As we were hanging out in the Bullpen talking, he would talk to some of the guests and answer their questions about The Shawshank Redemption or about prison history. Then afterwards he would tell the guests what his favorite video was on the chi-asks and he would put his arm over it as he was leaning on it and try to make eye contact with the guests as they watched his videos. The funny thing was the look on their faces when they realized the video was of Mike getting interviewed and they realized that he was a former inmate. They looked shocked, kind of like me a few hours before in the hallway upstairs when he jokingly asked me for my possessions.
Afterwards he talked about his time at OSR back in the late 60’s. I had heard about his stories from other volunteers but I wasn’t going to leave the area if you paid me to hear his story himself. Afterwards he spoke on how he was pardoned by State of Ohio Governor Bob Taft back in 2004. The second part of Mike’s story was just as sobering as the first half when Mike was an inmate at the Reformatory.
As I heard Mike tell his story over again to other guests who caught half of Mike’s story at OSR and they wanted him to repeat the parts they missed, it looked like Mike was in part story-mode and part therapy-mode like talking about his time helped him heal with his past. I can’t say for sure if that was the case or not but I got to meet a man who had so much adversity in his life that I cannot imagine and he turned that adversity around to make the system work for him. That was a great lesson in life and it had nothing to do with prison breaks, The Shawshank Redemption or the paranormal.
Some people at OSR that volunteer talk about what happened to inmates, guards and wardens there from other volunteers who never did time at OSR. Mike is an OSR volunteer to saw it, lived it, and breathed it. If you were lucky to see The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman is quoted saying “Andy Dufresne, a man who crawled through a river of feces and came clean on the other side”. If you’re luckier, you’ll bump into Mike at OSR and he can share with you his story. In reality he may drive to paradise on his Harley-Davidson rather than a Pontiac GTO as Andy did, but Mike’s story is just as awakening as you can get a life lesson in courage, strength, adversity, and overcoming life’s obstacles.
When I see Mike at the Reformatory I try not to dwell on the negative with Mike’s experience there but I try to learn from him about what it was like there and try not to be disrespectful during the process. We can only imagine the time that he spent there from our own perspective. Of course my cynical side wants Mike to be there when I’m giving a tour and tell one of Mike’s stories there at OSR with a non-suspecting group and see the looks on their faces when I tell them that the inmate that this occurred to was there in the room. Then I introduce Mike and see their surprised faces, just like mine was when I met him for the first time. And that’s a bonus on the tour, no charge necessary.
Tom is a volunteer in the Ghost Hunt, Tour Guide, and Archives programs at OSR.