Leland McPhie walks with a shuffle and his voice is low and a little hard to follow, but good grief, the man turned 99 on Sunday.
Going back a half-century, if you had the bad luck to be jailed in San Diego, McPhie would have been the man who held the keys. He’s clipped enough jailbird wings to make a featherbed.
For almost three decades, from his first day on the job in 1940 until retirement in 1969, he worked his way up from a deputy jail turnkey to the youngest sheriff’s captain and boss of the San Diego County jail.
Today, McPhie lives in a mobile home with his granddaughter, Michelle McPhie, in San Diego’s Linda Vista neighborhood. As a practicing Mormon, he continues the lifelong practice of avoiding alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. He was honored Wednesday by fellow retirees and others at the Kolender Sheriff’s Museum in Old Town.
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McPhie sits erectly in his chair and watches with alert eyes. His hair is thinning, but he’s still got a pretty good thatch. His skin shows the wear you might expect of a century of hard use.
But there was a time when, with flashing legs, a lithe body and a will to win, he was the star of track and field at San Diego State College. In 1937, he long-jumped 24 feet, 7 inches, and ran 220 yards in 20.9 seconds. Both were school records at the time.
Through the years he continued those exploits when he was a fixture at senior track meets. In his various age groups, he’s held 12 U.S. records and 11 world records. In 2010, he was still out there competing.
McPhie started his career in the jail right out of the academy. That small facility became the “old jail” when the “new,” larger jail opened in the early 1960s across the street at C and Front streets. McPhie was an important catalyst in constructing that facility and advocated many features that were progressive for the time.
Also in the ’60s, McPhie pushed to have female jail matrons become deputy sheriffs, until it finally happened.
The biggest change McPhie has observed over his years of watching a parade of criminals perp-walk into his cells was the explosion of drug-related crimes. “Back in the ’40s, about the only drug offenses were from the Orientals down on Market Street bringing in marijuana from Tijuana. Other than that, we didn’t see much of anything in the way of drugs.”
There are a lot more violent crimes today than in those days. “We never had near the gun violence you see on TV every day now. That’s mainly due to drugs and gangs,” he says.
There is less control of juveniles now, he believes, because of both parents working and of families being split up. Years ago, mothers were at home and were able to control their kids. The big hammer moms could wield was, “Just wait until your father gets home.” Now, kids have all hours during the day and night to run wild.
When McPhie was deputized, he recalls being the only college graduate on the force. “Cops back then were more on their own. They went a little too far at times, and sometimes they’d get too rough, but I never saw anyone brought into the jail who was beat-up by police. Today, prisoners are protected by civil rights, and cops are more professional and better educated.”
Overcoming my aversion to cliché questions, I ask what’s it like being almost 100.
He gives me more of an answer that I expect: “It’s like being 3 years old. People just automatically think you can’t do many of the things you can do perfectly well. That frustrates me.”
His main problems are orthopedic, and that especially pains the old athlete. “I feel younger mentally than physically. My motor control isn’t as sharp. I can’t walk as fast as I used to. I sure can’t run like I could, even a few years ago. I have to look where I walk so I don’t stumble or fall down, and that makes me shuffle. I have a cane, but I don’t use it as much as I suppose I should.”
McPhie demonstrates in his chair his greatest frustration and how he copes with it. “I have a hard time standing up. I put my feet as far back as I can and lean forward. I put my hands out like this.” He grips the chair arms and laboriously pushes himself up. “When I try to get out of bed in the morning, I sometimes fall back.”
He had a stroke a couple of years ago, which must be considered minor, I suppose, because it doesn’t seem to visibly impair him. He also has had an aortic valve replaced and cancer removed from his ear. After that repair work, McPhie says he’s good to go.
He’d be delighted to once again drive his car, if they’d let him. He lost his license after his stroke, and that vexes him. “I could get out and do lots of things if they’d let me drive,” he complains.
This is a man who will always fight to be taken seriously. He spent a lifetime being a serious man, and he has no intention of quitting.
He carries on by going to the gym a couple of times per week and works out. He’ll always be the athlete, so he’s looking forward to entering more senior track meets. He acknowledges he can no longer run or jump, but says he could throw the shot put or discus from a stationary position. To demonstrate, he slowly twists his body and then simulates a heave with his arm outward.
Winning is no longer why he loves the senior track meets. “I go there to socialize. I don’t care if I win or lose. I’ve got over 300 medals hanging on my wall and most of them are gold. I don’t need any more.”
He describes his memory as pretty good, and he’s proud to tell you he doesn’t have hearing aids and can read without his glasses. To prove it, he picks up an old newspaper lying nearby, removes his glasses and reads several lines without faltering.
Memory is a tricky proposition for anyone from the 60-year-old who can’t find her car keys, to the sixth-grader who “forgets” to bring his report card home — well, maybe not for the kid.
In an almost-centenarian, it waxes and wanes: sharp on one thing, then wavering on another and failing on yet another, even when talking about family.
“I have three children — uh, no, yeah, three: a boy and two girls. All still alive.” Grandchildren? “Five or six.” Great-grandchildren? “About 30, I guess.” Do you know them all? “If I see them, I recognize them, but I won’t know all the names.”
McPhie says he looks forward to welcoming the dawn of his 100th birthday next year, “out of curiosity.” He also desires to once again attend his beloved senior track meets.
He says otherwise, but competitive fires, though banked, can be stirred alive. And it’s possible that McPhie has noticed a blank spot on his wall of gold medals.
Those other old-timers might have to be satisfied with silver.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org