When he picked up the phone at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., last month, James Joseph Minder realized it was the call he'd been dreading for the past 20 years.

A reporter with the Arizona Republic had an urgent question for the 74-year-old chairman of Smith & Wesson Holding Corp.: Was he the notorious felon known as the "Shotgun Bandit" in Michigan decades ago?

Minder felt a flash of fear. At first he insisted the reporter had a case of mistaken identity. "I told him, 'I'm not that person,'" he recalled. He confirmed his name and date of birth. Then, they hung up.

But after talking to his wife of 28 years, Minder said he decided that "I had better tell the truth."

Minder quickly informed the other members of the company's board and, at the next meeting, tendered his resignation as chairman.

While his wife, son and some old acquaintances were aware of his past, the news has shocked friends, associates and board members. They can't reconcile the affable, grandfatherly chairman with the bandit described in decades-old news clippings.

As a serial armed robber in Michigan, Minder used a revolver -- for a while it was a Smith & Wesson -- and a sawed-off 16-gauge shotgun. He stole getaway cars and disguised himself with dark glasses, a trench coat and a flat-top hat. He escaped from prison and once terrorized employees at a branch of Manufacturers National Bank before stealing $53,000.

The dozens of holdups, some done while he was a student at the University of Michigan, earned him notoriety: "U-M Genius Can't Stay Out of Jail," the Detroit Free Press wrote in 1962.

"Those years are very fuzzy to me," Minder said recently. "I have repressed the memories."

Turning life around

His story is all the more remarkable for what he has done since.

After his final prison stint ended in 1969, he decided to turn his life around, he said. Before becoming chairman of Smith & Wesson, he spent more than two decades setting up programs and group homes for delinquent, abused, neglected and developmentally disabled children and young adults in Michigan.

By the mid-1990s, a nonprofit he started with his wife was providing board, counseling or foster-home placement for more than 1,000 young people a day.

"If my work in the field changed the lives of those children, then I accomplished what I set out to do and this is the legacy I leave behind," he said.

Minder said he has had a clean record since 1965, but there have been many times when he struggled with the secrets from his past.

"Obviously, the early years were nothing to be proud of," he said. "Unfortunately, that's the cross I bear, I guess."

While much of Minder's account is confirmed by newspaper reports, some of it couldn't be independently corroborated.

A 'vagabond existence'

Born in 1930 in Clinton, Mass., Minder said he lived a "vagabond existence" early on. "Any social worker in the country could write the scenario of my early life," he said. "It was a terrible childhood."