If the Hennepin County Home School for troubled juveniles kept a Hall of Fame for the Rehabilitated, Fred Bryan would be a sure thing.
In 1979, he was a 17-year-old Minneapolis Central High senior and football star who stole a car and was sent to the school in Minnetonka for a boot-camp-style program. Now he’s a 51-year-old who has risen to the top of two professions. He’s area director for juvenile services, just a notch below the commissioner for Community Corrections and Rehabilitation. And for four years, he’s spent his off days and weekends working as a National Football League referee.
One memorable verbal dispute during his stay at the home school gave him a focus. “The whole process changed the trajectory of my life,” he said, adding, “I didn’t have any aspirations of being a career criminal.” But he also didn’t know what he wanted to do or whether to accept a proffered football scholarship.
Today, Bryan’s job includes overseeing the home school and managing the juvenile division as it moves through what County Board Chairman Mike Opat calls a reformation in how delinquent teens are treated.
The school, located on 167 acres of bucolic land along County Road 62, treats youths ages 13 to 20 for issues ranging from crime to sexual abuse.
Within the past few years, the county has pushed hard away from locking up kids in favor of a community-based approach that includes working with parents. The program, called Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, has halved the population at the downtown lockup in the past few years.
The population at the home school is also down by half, and the cottage where Bryan lived back in the ’70s has been mothballed.
The home school land is so striking and well-positioned that occasionally the county considers selling it, but talk of a sale is static for now, Opat said. He and fellow Commissioner Jan Callison, who represents the district, agree there will always be a need for a youth residential school.
Callison, who attends the home school’s graduation ceremonies, said, “There are great stories to be told about how kids are helped out there.”
Revisiting his past
On a recent afternoon, Bryan sat down on the metal bed in his old cell at the school.
In a career of working in corrections, he can use his life as a powerful example. Where he once broke the rules, his life’s work became enforcing them.
“If we needed a ride on the weekend or we needed to go somewhere, we’d steal a car,” Bryan said of his teen years. He ran into trouble when he and friends were caught in a stolen car on their way to Wisconsin to buy beer. The incident landed him in the home school.
Bryan’s defining moment came after a disagreement with a staff member. “I probably thought he was disrespecting me,” Bryan said.
Bryan went to the staff supervisor, who wasn’t sympathetic. He kept coming back with “Yeah, but ...” until the supervisor said, “If you think you can do better, why don’t you go to school, come back and I’ll hire you.”
He earned a major in social work and a minor in corrections from the University of Northern Iowa, waited for openings at the home school and was hired in 1984. He was a few months out of college and working alongside staff members who had been there when he was a resident. Through the years, he worked in juvenile detention and probation before moving into supervisory roles, including most recently as the director of the home school.
Bryan’s counterpart in adult services is Chet Cooper, a former Gophers football player who has refereed games alongside Bryan. He sees parallels between wearing game stripes and running a corrections division. “We’re both managers [at work], and on the football field, you try to manage the game,” Cooper said.
Cooper said Bryan is “the type of guy who when everything’s swirling around, he’ll be the calm one,” Cooper said.
Not your usual weekend job
As his corrections career chugged along, so did his avocation on the football field. He started as a junior varsity coach at North High School, but was “autocratic” to the point where the head coach said, “Would you ever consider being an official?”
Bryan, who generally comes across as measured and good-natured, then worked his way up from the high school fields through college divisions until the NFL called. The coming season will be his fifth.
“The players are hilarious. There’s some serious comedians out there,” Bryan said.
One Philadelphia Eagles player, unhappy with a call favorable to the New York Giants, said to Bryan, “How come when I look at all the other officials’ uniforms it says ‘NFL’ and yours says ‘NYG’?”
When Bryan asked a certain Minnesota Vikings defender whether he was rightly called for holding, the player replied with a rowdy, “I’ve been holding since fourth grade.”
Bryan can be seen in an online video getting steamrolled by running back Shonn Greene, who then played for the New York Jets. He got right back up and smiled.
At the home school, he also stood out for his demeanor. A report on his release-day report called him an “even-tempered young man” with “excellent potential.”
He had been committed for 21 days. He got out in 15 because of good behavior. He came back for a career.