Weldon Long was back in a halfway house last month, but not as a client.
The ex-convict was at ComCor Inc. to talk with about two dozen of the community corrections agency's female clients about how to, as he says, "transform their lives."
Long started his speech by giving his Colorado Department of Corrections number - 57676. The number conveys instant respect among convicts because it shows he was an "old-timer" in prison - new prisoners now get numbers higher than 146500. Then, he told them his "inability to control myself" landed him in prison for the first time in 1987 and eventually cost him 13 years, including the first 10 years of his son's life.
"Nobody wants to be here. We have all promised ourselves it wouldn't happen again. I know what it feels like to promise your son that you wouldn't go to jail again and then call him from jail," Long told the women.
"I'm not here to preach to you; I'm here to share a couple of lessons. No matter how many times you have been knocked down, screwed over or had promises broken, it doesn't matter after today. Whatever got you here today, move beyond it."
Long has done just that, he says, and the past that threatened to doom him now serves as a new career, of sorts. Long owns one of the largest heating and air-conditioning contractors in the Colorado Springs area. Lately, he's been giving motivational speeches to ComCor clients as well as sales organizations. And he's written an autobiography, "The Upside of Fear: How One Man Broke the Cycle of Prison, Poverty and Addiction" that will be published Sept. 1 by Austin, Texas-based Greenleaf Book Group Press.
A high school dropout and alcoholic by the time he was 15, Long never held a steady job and most of his self-employment schemes collapsed quickly, leaving him continually broke. He grew up in Louisiana, but moved to Denver in early 1987 with his first wife to get a new start.
Both the book and his speeches to convicts relate a life of crime that started with Long picking up a hitchhiker in Denver in 1987 and deciding to use a shotgun in his truck to rob someone after an evening of drinking and drugs. Long and the hitchhiker eventually robbed two Sunbird restaurant customers and fired on two other customers who were chasing them up Interstate 25 to Castle Rock, where Colorado State Patrol officers arrested them.
"I had been at a crossroads that night in the parking lot" with the hitchhiker, Long writes in his book. "I could have chosen either path, but I chose the path of least resistance and maximum pain. It's amazing how much pain we will endure before we do something about it. I hadn't even begun to scratch pain's surface," referring to additional prison time he served for a parole violation, his part in a charity scam and several more armed robberies.
While in federal prison awaiting trial on the charity scam charges in June 1996, Long recounts how he was awoken in the middle of night to learn his father had died. That triggered what he now calls his "epiphany, my moment of clarity."
"I was a three-time loser, facing seven more years in prison, my son was three years old, his mother and I were not getting along, I had no education, no money, no future," Long wrote in his book. "And then something interesting happened. In the days following my dad's death, I began to stop and think: My father's last memory of me was that I was in prison again. Looking back, I realized how pathetic I must have looked in his eyes."
Long relates in the book and his speeches how he developed a four-step process for personal change, which he calls F.E.A.R., for becoming focused (F) and emotionally (E) committed to a goal, and then taking consistent action (A) and complete responsibility (R) to realize it.
He came up with the process after his father's death by reading self-improvement books, including Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," Wayne Dyer's "Real Magic" and Napoleon Hill's "You Can Work Your Own Miracles."
The process began, the book said, by writing down goals that included buying a mountain home in Colorado, writing a book on the shores of Maui, marrying a woman he trusted and becoming an educated man.
"I took that piece of paper, stuck it to the wall of my cell with toothpaste, read the list, meditated on the list and dreamed about the things on the list for seven years," Long told the women. He wouldn't leave prison for another seven years, but the high school dropout earned a bachelor's degree in law and a master's degree in business administration through correspondence courses financed by a small inheritance from his grandmother.
Also during that seven-year period, Long wrote hundreds of letters to his son. Those letters would form an unbreakable bond with his son.
Without the letters, "we wouldn't have had a real relationship. I would have had a stranger as a dad. This way I actually knew him," said Hunter Long, Weldon Long's 16-year-old son, who said he has kept all the letters.
A year before his release, he helped resuscitate a prison guard who had collapsed, and earned a letter from the prison's warden commending and thanking him for performing "an act of heroism." Long said he believes that may have paved the way for his release six months early.
After leaving prison, Long would eventually meet and marry Janet Cole, whom he met through a prison-based Alcoholics Anonymous program, reunite with his son, and find a sales job with a small heating and air-conditioning company.
He later worked for another heating contractor before he and Cole used credit card cash advances to start their own company, then called A Best Value Heating and Cooling.
"I saw something in Wally (Weldon) I truly believed in. I knew he would become somebody someday. I took a huge risk on a guy I saw something in," Cole said. "I'm very proud of him. He came out of prison with absolutely nothing and built a successful life."
Long later acquired two other heating companies and merged them into what is now called Wright Total Indoor Comfort with the help of a former Lakewood police officer, Ron Chaulk, whom Long met on a golf course in 2005. They struck up a friendship because both had read the same self-improvement books. Long and Chaulk also invested together in pizza restaurants, but have since bought out each other's interests in their businesses.
The former business partners remain friends and plan to write a book together next year called "A Cop and a Con" on their shared success philosophies, Long said. Chaulk did not return two phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Jarle Wood, Long's first case manager at ComCor and now a senior program manager for the agency, once called Long "the most self-destructive person I have ever known" but now describes him as "a guy you meet and think, ‘What he did doesn't fit the person I am meeting.' He is a bright guy who did stupid things but also is very capable of doing what he puts his mind to. Anyone with the right tools can make changes. I recognized he was a guy who could change."
Long said he decided to write "The Upside of Fear" after facing the loss of his company's license from the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department after disclosing his criminal convictions.
He eventually kept his license but decided he "didn't want my life to be ammunition for competitors ever again. It made me so mad that I didn't want to be in a situation where it could be used against me, so I decided to write a book about my life."
Cole convinced Long to go to Maui by himself in December 2007 and write the book. He would get up every day at 4 a.m. and write at least 2,000 words until he completed the 40,000-word manuscript just before Christmas. He later added an additional 20,000 words to the book.
The book recently received the Best Biography/Autobiography Award from the New York Book Festival and has gotten endorsements from best-selling authors Stephen Covey and Vince Poscente, and motivational speaker Anthony Robbins.
Long also has set up a motivational-speaking business, sharing his self-improvement process with convention and meeting planners. He has done about 25 such speeches in the past two years and hopes to eventually do 25 to 50 a year.
Like most other businesses, Wright Total Indoor Comfort has taken a hit from the recession. The company has reduced its staff from 80 to about 30 in the past two years; much of that came from shutting down its commercial and new residential operations, Long said.
The company's sales declined from $7 million in 2007 to $5.5 million last year and should be about the same this year, though the smaller firm is more profitable now, he said.
Long plans to continue to make free presentations to ComCor clients with a simple message: "If you stay sober and take responsibility for your actions, there is a good chance you won't be back (in prison). If not, there is a good chance you will be."
In his speech to the female convicts, he continued, "Nobody here has a record as bad as mine, but I still overcame it. Bad things happen to good people. It's how you respond to things in life that dictates whether you are successful."
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What: Weldon Long signs copies of his book, "The Upside of Fear"When and Where: 2-4 p.m. Sept. 12, Borders Books, Chapel Hills Mall, 1710 Briargate Blvd., and 2-4 p.m. Sept. 26, Barnes & Noble, 795 Citadel Drive E.