Ken McCullum became a deputy on a dare.
Close to thirty years ago, Ken was a young man with a passion for martial arts and the knowledge that it would likely not lead to a high-paying job.
A friend challenged Ken to take the test that was part of the application process to join the Alameda County Sheriff's Department.
"So, I really took the test on a dare more or less to see if I can make it," Ken recalls, "and one thing led to another and, man, I got in. 25 years later I’m retired."
While Ken may be done with the job, though, what he learned in his quarter century with the department has formed the core of his latest endeavor: Men of Iron.
Men of Iron is a non profit Ken started seven years ago to help young boys from the East Bay stay out of trouble and, hopefully, out of prison.
The idea for Men of Iron, Ken says, had it origins in trips he took to San Quentin State Prison. On more than one occasion, it was Ken's job to transfer a condemned prisoner to death row at San Quentin.
Ken would take advantage of their time together to ask the men exactly where their lives had gone so wrong.
"Most of them grew up without a father in the home for the most part," Ken says, "so they told me that they were allowed to run wild, no structure, no responsibility."
For Ken, who grew up in a strict, two-parent, household in rural Mississippi, the concept was foreign to him. That was the difference I saw. They didn’t have the structure I grew up with," Ken says.
"They wish had someone that would put them in check, they wish they had the structure."
Years later, when Ken's pastor challenged his congregants to do good in the world, Ken decided to put that knowledge to use.
He began seeking out boys, some as young as six or seven-years-old, who were having trouble at home, at school, or with the law. He would gather them every other week for regular meetings.
Based loosely on military and marital arts principals, Ken would lead the boys in exercises and drills and talk to them about making the right choices in life.
"I decided that something needed to be done," Ken says. "I saw so many young men who were undisciplined, who didn’t have the common sense or common courtesies we grew up with."
Ken keeps in regular contact with the boys between meetings as well. If one of the boys gets in trouble at school, Ken is often the first person the school administrators will contact. If one gets in trouble with the law, Ken makes sure they experience the consequences of his actions."
Ken realizes the dozen-or-so boys he works with are just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of boys across the East Bay who could use his guidance. He doesn't let that fact discourage him, though. He thinks it should instead inspire others to do the same.
"Instead of looking for the right person, be the right person," Ken says. "If you can save one life you know steer one kid in the right direction, that’s more than enough."
"I’m hoping to steer more than that."