KETCHIKAN, Alaska — It's a Wednesday evening in the Ketchikan Correctional Center, and Freddie John is getting ready to sing.
He plugs his guitar into a portable PA system while his wife, Joann, arranges a batch of cookies on a table near the door of a meeting room within the facility.
Soon, inmates begin to file in. Most take seats in the hard plastic chairs at the center of the room and start leafing through songbooks.
Two inmates with guitars sit along a side wall near the front of the room with two volunteers who'd arrived with the Freddie and Joann John. Three other inmates pick up microphones and stand next to Freddie John, 82, who's now wearing a microphone headset.
John has been bringing these songs into the Ketchikan Correctional Center since the 1960s and hopes to continue for a long while yet.
"I was sitting in the jail one day and a guy said, Â How long are you going to be singing, Freddie?'" said John. "Â Well, let's see, I'm 80 now and I asked the Lord to give me 20 more years.' He gave me two more, and I've got 18 to go."
Born in 1928, Fred "Freddie" John got an early start on Christian music.
His grandfather and parents helped build a church building for The Salvation Army Gateway Corps in Ketchikan. John's father played trombone in the church, his uncle played guitar.
When John was 8, his brother-in-law gave him his first guitar.
Music came naturally to the youth. By the time John started attending the Wrangell Institute boarding school at age 14, he already was winning music competitions with songs like "Lovesick Blues" and "Just Because."
John's parents, however, declined a music teacher's request to take John to New York City to continue his music education.
During World War II, John tried to join the Army when he was 15. He actually made it into the Army toward the end of the war, when he was 17.
"That's where I learned my country music," John said.
John got out of the service in 1948, but his personal life hit a rough patch.
"I went a little haywire, like all young men," he said.
He kept playing music, though. He said he sang regularly in the Sourdough Bar for about a year and a half after leaving the service.
Things changed in 1951, around the time that he met his first wife, Lorena,
"The Lord came into my life and led us right into The Salvation Army," John said.
John soon was immersed in singing and playing music for church services and functions, all while fully employed. His long working career included the Laborers Union, the Ketchikan Spruce Mill (28 years) and the Ketchikan School District for about 15 years.
During the 1960s, he began traveling for The Salvation Army during his breaks from work.
"Instead of taking a vacation and going south, I'd take my four weeks and we'd travel," John said.
The travels expanded into Canada, along the U.S. West Coast, and east to Michigan. His last trip was with a Salvation Army group that visited the Caribbean and South America.
John continued to play and sing in Ketchikan, visiting various churches and playing for conventions, memorial services and Christmas events.
He was sitting in a church service one Sunday during the 1960s when something inside him said, "You know, you need to go to the prison."
"It went like that for about a month, and finally I said, 'Well, I'll call up there and they'll probably say no,'" John said.
He called the Ketchikan Correctional Center — which then was located in the Federal Building — and asked if he could bring some volunteers in to conduct a church service and sing-along.
To his surprise, the correctional center approved of the idea immediately. As it turned out, the inmates quite enjoyed the singing.
"The guys, they loved to sing — they came out and sang out like everything," John said.
John continued with the prison ministry for a many years, taking a break after the death of his first wife.
About 11 years ago, he married Joann, his current wife.
Two or three years after he'd left the prison ministry, John told Joann that he felt he should resume it.
"She said, 'Let's go.' And so we started going back in again," he said
John started visiting on Saturdays and Sundays with representatives of the Lighthouse Church of God and the South Tongass Alliance Church, respectively.
"Then we started the Wednesday night sing-along, because the boys like to sing," he said.
He's usually accompanied by James Halverson of The Salvation Army, and Nathan Jackson of the South Tongass Alliance Church. On Nov. 17, he was accompanied by Richard Zellmer and Calvin Bakk.
The weekly sing-alongs typically attract about 20 and 40 inmates, according to John. The events last about 90 minutes, including time for testimonies from visitors and inmates about the influence of God in their lives.
Whatever one's beliefs, watching Mr. John sing hymns and gospel songs with a large group of prison inmates is to recognize that something positive is happening, if only for the moment.
It appears to be a time when cares and circumstance can recede.
And indeed, the events are popular with the inmates, according to Ketchikan Correctional Center Superintendent Diane Gregory and Lt. Dave Henderson.
Another person who has long seen Mr. John's efforts is former KCC Superintendent Alan Bailey.
Bailey said John has put a lot of work into a well-received program that has grown over the years.
People know who Mr. John is, and what they can expect from the sing-alongs.
"When (inmates) go to his program, they know they're going to receive a positive message, and that, I assure you, is not always the case for those who are in jail," Bailey said. "They don't always receive positive information."
Over the years, John has received a number of commendations and letters of appreciation from The Salvation Army, City of Ketchikan, the Ketchikan Correctional Center and others.
Among the most meaningful gestures of appreciation came on John's 82nd birthday in September.
Given the choice between going out for a birthday dinner or going to sing, John chose singing at the correctional center.
"We started singing, and the door opened, and then everybody started singing, 'Happy Birthday,'" he said. "Then they brought a big birthday cake in. And oh, that's the first time I've ever seen that, you know."Comment on this story
He still packs his own gear to and from his jailhouse gigs, and appreciates people's willingness to carry items.
In addition to visiting the correction center regularly during the week for the sing-alongs, Christian movie nights and services, John has been be active in other aspects of music ministry in Ketchikan.
And he's grateful for the opportunities to continue to play and sing songs with the correctional center inmates and share music in other areas of the community.
"I enjoy what I do for the Lord," John said. "I think that's what keeps me going."
Information from: Ketchikan Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com