Kansas City's Man Class was designed for at-risk youths, but it's gained some unlikely new students: veterans 

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"He was someone who wanted to know what had been tried and what hadn't," Sparkman-Barnes says. "He had a reputation as a very smart, good man."

But there were some things Knott knew without the benefit of a study — like how a man could abandon his children.

As a student in the late 1970s at the University of Kansas, Knott met the woman who would give him his first son. She got pregnant in 1980. They married and moved back to Kansas City. But two years later, Knott was gone.

"Things weren't working, and I couldn't stay and make them work," he says. "I'm sorry for that now. At the time, I just wanted to go out and make my fortune."

His son grew up in the very conditions that Knott now works to prevent. Meanwhile, Knott became something of a nomad. For 20 years, he went from job to job, state to state, making some money here, losing some there. He sold water in California and built communication towers in Nevada. He married twice more and fathered two more children. The second marriage crumbled as quickly as the first; the third devolved into what he describes as a "codependent relationship centered around doing a lot of drugs."

After that marriage ended, Knott finally experienced what addicts call the "moment of clarity." But what to do with the moment was less clear.

"I suppose I did have some hopes of making things right, but I don't know that I had a real plan for anything," he says. "I just knew I needed to get back to Kansas City."

He moved back in 2003 and spent the next several years working in his old neighborhood. He was president of the Manheim Park Neighborhood Association and a well-known anti-violence activist. When Hyde Park neighbors met about a string of homicides in 2008, organizers urged residents to read Knott's e-mails about working in the community. He was one of several activists who attended KCMO's initial meetings about Aim4Peace, now the city's best-known anti-violence program. In August 2009, he held a conference on absentee fathers at UMKC. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver gave the opening address.

That same year, he brought the idea of the Man Class to Sparkman-Barnes. Reams of research, both local and national, had looked at how broken homes contribute to violence and other crime. But Sparkman-Barnes had never seen anyone address the problem the way Knott proposed.

"It was all common-sense stuff," she says, "but the odd thing is that to my knowledge, it's a group of people and a type of problem that hadn't been specifically targeted before."

For more than a year, Knott, Sparkman-Barnes and an ad hoc group of UMKC psychologists tailored a curriculum to whatever data they could gather on young black men from broken homes.

"If you look at this history and the interviews we'd done with people in these homes, what we found was people who didn't know the basics," Sparkman-Barnes says. "Knowing how to get a job? Knowing to dress nicely for an interview? A lot of men didn't even have that."

The class would include basic life skills: what to wear on a job interview, how to balance a checkbook, and the like. But the challenge would be to engage a wide cross-section of men, from street-raised teens to older men who just never got it together.

Early in the course book, there's a lesson on appearance. To illustrate the difference between a professional and a fraud, it shows two pictures: one of a real policewoman and one of a porn star falling out of a skintight cop costume.

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