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Wayne McKenna just started a new job as a corrections officer. He plans to work until he's 65 to be eligible for a retirement package.

For most people, that would take about 35 years, but for McKenna, it's fewer than 10.

He's 58 years old.

McKenna is changing careers later in life, from drywaller to jail officer for the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office. He just graduated from the 14-week training program and spent his third day on the job last Friday.

"This has meaning," McKenna said, "if I can help somebody turn their life around."

McKenna had never considered law enforcement before. He was a self-employed drywaller for 30 years. But after a friend suggested the job to help McKenna in his search for a change of pace and retirement checks, "the more I got into it, the more I liked it," he said.

His background made it easy for him to work with and talk to the minimum-security prisoners at the county jail. The Utah native got a degree in psychology from the University of Utah and volunteered for HelpLine, a crisis hotline service, in the late 1970s and early '80s. He said the experiences taught him the methods and values of interpersonal communication.

"I think it always comes in handy when dealing with people," he said.

And dealing with people is exactly what his job entails.

During his 2 to 10 p.m. shifts, McKenna sits in a "house" where he manages a maximum of 64 prisoners who are in jail for minor crimes, each offense carrying no more than a one-year sentence.

They often aren't "locked down" in their cells and come to see McKenna for information about their court appointments, pending charges and release dates. They also roam about the jail taking care of their other daily activities: showers, recreation and meals.

McKenna said he's not sure how rare it is for someone his age to begin a career as a corrections officer, but it doesn't matter.

"I'm just like everyone else," he said.

As easy a fit in some ways as the new post was, though, it didn't all translate into a seamless career move. McKenna said in the past year since he decided to change jobs he has made sacrifices.

The biggest of those was kicking his 30-year-old, three-packs-a-day smoking habit so he could run 1 1/2 miles in the required 14 minutes and 55 seconds for his age range.

"I ran it in 13 [minutes and] 38 [seconds]," he said. "Considering I was in no shape at all . . . now I'm starting to feel like I am in fairly decent shape."

McKenna said he probably would have quit the program if the payoff hadn't been so big. For him, that payoff is security for retirement.

Financial concerns aside, McKenna said he truly is looking forward to his job. Besides, his hobbies of fishing and photography aren't exactly conducive to a retirement package, and he doesn't want to ruin them for himself, either.

"When I retire, I'm going to build a woodworking shop," he said. "And just enjoy it."

He'll always remember his roots, though, and continue to drywall for those who have come to depend on him over the years.


E-mail: lwhite@desnews.com