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Q&A: Carl Cannon On Leadership And What Drives Him In His New Autobiography

Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio

You probably know Carl Cannon as the founder of ELITE, a Peoria Park District youth outreach program. You might also know Cannon used to be a correctional officer. But you may not know what eventually led him to make the switch from keeping people behind bars to keeping them out.

WCBU's Tim Shelley chats with Cannon and his co-author, Lance Zedric, about Cannon's new autobiography.

TIM SHELLEY: The book 'Full Cannon,' this is your life story. Tell me a little bit about how this all came about?

CARL CANNON: Well, the pandemic occurred. My friend, co-author Lance Zedric, has been trying to get me to write a book for at least a decade, we've been friends a long time.

When Lance approached me about 10 years ago, we went over what it would be like, how we could do it, and it just didn't click. And then we had a pandemic. And Lance sent me a chapter, something I'd shared with him years before, I'd shared with his students. And we just got on a roll, I think, from there. Wouldn't you agree, Lance?

LANCE ZEDRIC: Yeah, I think it all came to a head on an elliptical about 4:45 in the morning at the gym. We were sweating it out together. And for 15 years, I have to correct Carl a little bit. It's been longer than that. We're old.

I would add that as an author, I always try to work an angle. And with Carl, I knew his story, it needed to be told. But I couldn't find in my great friend. I couldn't find the reason why he did what he does. And I just I needed that in that was the raison d'etre behind him was. I needed to know why he did what he did.

So he out of the blue, told me this story that occurred with him in prison, not when he was an inmate because he wasn't an inmate while working in the prison, but something profound and life changing occurred in his life. And the minute he told me, I knew. And s a matter of fact, he had told this story on NPR national radio. But he it it just slipped his mind. He's so busy of a man, so motivated, that he had never told me this story in full. And then all of a sudden, it was just an epiphany. And I knew now we have the beginning of the book. Now I know what to write or to begin writing about my friend, and maybe he can expand a little bit about what that story was.

CARL CANNON: Yeah, Tim, I'm not unlike a lot of young, African American kids in urban settings. We were poor. And not unlike other kids, I didn't want to be poor. So I found a way forward, and not unlike a lot of urban kids - I keep saying that - I chose athletics. And I was pretty good athlete and went to the oldest high school in the state, Peoria Central. I was in both football and wrestling. Captain of the wrestling team.

Got a chance to go to college, but I went for the wrong reasons. I went for athletics, got there and found out, you're students and your student community knows about academics. So I got bounced.

And for me, I had to make a decision. Do I come back home to Peoria embarrassed? Or can I find an alternative? And for me, it was a Sunday afternoon. I'm driving back from school. I wind up in downtown Peoria. Across from the Holiday Inn, there's this Uncle Sam photo. And so I went in that Army recruiting office, and I found my way out. I joined the Army on any instant, because I was too embarrassed to go home and tell my family that I was the first of seven to fail and make it.

So I wound up in the Army, a military policeman. But when you raise their right hand you lose some choices. (You) belong to Uncle Sam. I went in to be a MP. They made me a prison guard. So I wasn't just gonna be a prison guard. I was gonna take my athletic ability and my competitive mindset, I was going to be the best prison guard.

I wound up at Leavenworth, Kansas, the military prison. I excelled there as a correctional officer. In less than a year, I was selected to run special housing unit. That's a hole. And I was in charge of all of the base units in the hole. That's death row. That's disciplinary segregation, females segregation, officer, segregation, recreation restriction. Well, I'm in charge of these areas. I will never forget, I got a call to go down to disciplinary segregation. I got a call to report down there. There was a disturbance in the lower area. The inmates had flooded the tier. I mean, they became disruptive. They backed the toilets up. They threw trash, everything. So I went down to restore order. And on my way to restore order, I passed the celsl. So number 138, the inmate in that cell stopped and he said 'hey, CO.' And for some reason I stopped because it was noise up and down the tier. And he wanted to make sure I knew he didn't start the disturbance that was in on that, on that in that base unit. So I told him, don't worry about it.

We restored order about three something in the morning, early in the morning. I had to bring the cards they came in from a tunnel. Leavenworth was an old penitentiary. So we had tunnels that came from the dining hall down to the housing units. I let the guard in with the food, and in route, passing by cell 138, in the periphery of my vision an inmate was hanging.

That just stunned me. It stopped me. I remember trying to get on the radio to get the guard cage to open that cell so I could get in there. It was taking too long. I remember running to the top of the stairs yelling at the guard cage, open 138. When I got back, it was electronically starting to open and I tried to muscle it. I got in there. I hoisted the body up. The guard who was with me bringing in carts untied the sheet. We lay the inmate down in front of the cell because there wasn't enough room in the cell to start CPR.

I started the mouth to mouth. And the guard started chest compressions. I will never forget when I put my mouth on the inmates mouth to get that first breath. How cold the body was.

We had to keep that process going until the medical unit came and pronounced one way or the other. When we were doing this, the other inmates came to the front of their cell. They were all awake. They saw what was going on. And they started yelling at us 'killers.' They're yelling at me and the other guard. And I felt so guilty because he was so cold. And again, I'm in charge. The inmate didn't make it.

And I'd witnessed some horrific stuff. This one stuck. And I was in a state of mind where I didn't want to work in the prison anymore. Matter of fact, I left there determined not to ever return. And I think I know it goes back to, when I first started at Leavenworth, they showed me all the shortcuts. So that's why they inmate was so cold. Somebody did a shortcut. And I was in charge.

And I left there and went home, got drunk, and told my wife when going back Captain calls me two days later. I told him I wasn't going back. Court martial me, do what you got to do. I'm not going back in that institution.

He got me when he said, 'I'm not worried about you, Cannon. I'm worried about those men who respect you. if you don't go back. I'm worried about what to do to them.'

And that's what got me. So I did go back because I needed to protect them from a feeling that I had that day. And when I went back, I went back they thought it was crazy. What sounds crazy in a prison, I started talking to inmates like they were human beings. I started using words that people were attaching to the population inside of prisons, words like please, and thank you. sir and ma'am. Respect.

And when I started doing that, I started having fewer issues with the population and my guys, my team, I insist that they do the same thing. And we started having fewer disruptions, fewer, just opportunities to get hurt. And that 'sir' changed our life. All of a sudden, I didn't want to be Carl Cannon CO, correction officer cannon, who was good at keeping people in. I wanted to be like one of your teachers on that campus. I wanted to be somebody who was good at keeping people out. Long story short, that's cell 138, for me.

TIM SHELLEY: Right. And Carl, what really drives you? You came talk to my school when I was a kid and I remember ELITE. You're on the ICC Board of Trustees, the Peoria Housing Authority. I mean, it seems like anywhere you look, Carl Cannon is doing something out in the community.What drives you to do all this?

CARL CANNON: Well, I want to put it in a category of servant leadership, servant leadership. Talk is cheap. I mean, if I'm going to motivate an audience, you got to walk that talk. That's important to me, not only at work, but at home. I'm proud to share, Tim, I've been married to my wife, Melinda, 38 years. I don't look that old, but 38 years. We have two daughters that are beautiful, just wonderful families.

Servant leadership, I think, I go back to Bill Giles. I go back to my military days and some of the inspirational leaders that have been in my life. And what I've learned is, through the military, let me say it this way. My first stop in the military was the Republic of Korea, South Korea. I thought we were poor. And I shared this with the kids. When I went to Korea, we went into our first stop where it's a holding area. And then they came and picked us up and took us to our base unit. My base unit was called Camp Mark. And it was an hour away from Seoul, between Seoul and Camp Mark, we had to make a stop at the bathroom.

I went to the bathroom, we stopped at this little restaurant. The bathroom was not in the restaurant. It was an outhouse. There was no light switch to turn on. There was no water faucet to wash your hands. Yet it was a normal part of their culture. And it just struck me that what I cried about what I was, you know, woe is me about living in in the hood, somebody else's living.

And I just made it my mission from there to share with those who are dealing with the factors, and the factors I refer to our poverty, geography, and dysfunction, family dysfunction, whatever, those are bad. So I tell an audience, I apologize if you're dealing with those, if that's what you need to hear, I'll be the one to say I'm sorry, I'll be the bigger man. But understand as bad as you have, and you can have those factors, one or all of them, but he can get worse. You can have them and you could call somebody like me, what I was wearing was CO, which is having those factors and knowing that it got worse. But it can also get better.

And that's me and my approach to youth. Depending on the group, I tell them the most powerful thing you might do is utilize two of God's greatest gifts - your ears. Except when you use them, go back in that classroom and do what you hadn't done before. Sit there, shut up, and listen, you know, because knowledge is power. And that's what Bill Giles shared with me and many other teachers, you know, since.

LANCE ZEDRIC: One thing I'd like to add to what Carl just said, that, at the core of this is leadership, whether it's leading your family, leading your church, leading your classroom, leading a community, leading a nation. Leadership is what really makes a difference. Because if you set that example, for whomever you're leading, then not only are you showing that immediate group the right way, but you're showing them the right way to lead others the right way.

And and leadership has that either a direct trickle down effect, or a complete avalanche effect. You see a good leader, boy, you pick them out right now. And Carl has so many of those traits. He has a booming voice and he puts on a great show. You mentioned that you saw Carl. You saw how he could that voice and how he can project. I mean to to a lot of kids that earned the respect, but then he would bring it down low and he'd speak softly and then he he would appeal to the other side, to the other group, to the soft spoken  and he could lead with power or he could lead with compassion.

And I think the core message of this book is lead others somewhere lead yourself lead and lead by example. And that you don't have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Yeah, to still be successful in make a difference because you get to a certain well I just say you get to Carl's age. I'm not quite there yet. But you get to Carl's age. And you want to look back and say, 'Well, what, what difference did I make?' And I think when you read the book, that you see, this man has made a difference. He really has.

And it didn't have to be a huge difference all at once, you didn't have to be the MVP of the Super Bowl or the All Star game or be a Rhodes Scholar. You can go to Central High and, and still make an immense difference in the lives of so many. So I wanted to add that and make sure that that's out there. That is a great core message.

TIM SHELLEY: So is that the purpose then, of the book or what you hope people take away from the book, is leading by example? Here's how I can help other people or serve other people, basically.

CARL CANNON: Exactly. This is a book that if read, I wanted to motivate the motivated, and to motivate those who aren't motivated. I wanted to have a place in each and every person's heart that says, 'Wow, he could do it. I could do it. She could do it. I can do it.' That's my whole prayer.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Learn more about Full Cannon: Love, Leadership, and Making a Difference by clicking here.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.