Column: Portrait of Forgiveness

Portrait of Divine Forgiveness

Serendipity smiled on me last week in a local bookstore when I met Erin Prewitt for the first time. What began as a brief encounter lasted two hours and left me divinely changed.

I also was left feeling like I had in a manner spoken with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and other sages of compassion.1-forgive

Understand, this was less than 24 hours before sentencing would be handed down in a Ventura County courtroom for 24-year-old Shante Chappell who, while driving under the influence of marijuana and Xanax, struck and killed Erin’s 38-year-old husband Chris during a marathon training run on Victoria Avenue.

On an evening that might well have been filled with thoughts of vengeance, Erin was a portrait from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” specifically the famous line: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

The essay’s title is itself apropos because Erin told me she was certain she would receive criticism for her compassion towards the monumental error of gross vehicular manslaughter. No matter, her mindset was Lincolnesque: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

Despite a senseless act that made her a widow and left their 7-year-old daughter Isabella fatherless, Erin shared with me what she would tell the judge the next day – Chris, a beloved educator, would forgive Chappell and therefore she has.

While prosecutors sought a sentence of six years in state prison, Erin wished for shorter justice. Superior Court Judge Ryan Wright must have been moved by her entreaty for he handed down a low-term of four years.

From nearly the moment she received the tragic news of her husband’s death, Erin felt a need to grant forgiveness for many reasons.

Firstly, for her own healing, recognizing the wisdom of Nelson Mandela: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Also, by example, she wished to plant the rich fruit of strength in Isabella. Thus into action Erin has put Gandhi’s words: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Importantly, too, Erin felt a responsibility to set the tone for the rest of her family and friends as well as the community at large.

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it,” Mark Twain wrote. Erin Prewitt is a human violet, crushed by a heel of tragedy, yet already blooming again.

At times Erin spoke spiritually, so it was fitting we were in Mrs. Fig’s Bookworm in Camarillo because storeowner Connie Halpern says “Fig” stands for Faith In God. Faith, family and friends have been paramount through Erin’s mourning.

As I said earlier, meeting Erin affected me greatly. Eleven years ago my life was also impacted by a driver under the influence. While I blessedly survived the high-speed collision, I suffered permanent injury.

Too, my bitterness at the drunk driver had been permanent. Erin changed that. If she can forgive Chappell, how can I not do so a far lesser tragedy?

Erin’s gift to me is a gift to all. From her standard, how can we not forgive an estranged family member or alienated friend or even ourselves for a shortcoming?

If Erin could hug Chappell in courtroom and, as reported in The Star, tell her, “We forgive you, but it’s time for you to forgive yourself,” then surely the rest of us are capable of showing more compassion.

Lincoln one more time. During the Civil War he frequently received appeals for presidential pardons for soldiers who had been court-martialed and sentenced to die. These petitions were always accompanied by letters of support from influential people.

On one occasion, Lincoln received a single-page appeal from a soldier without any supporting documents. “What? Has this man no friends?” asked the president.

“No, sir,” said the adjutant. “Not one.”

“Then I will be his friend,” said Lincoln as he signed the pardon for the soldier.

Erin Prewitt seems a similarly divine friend.


Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Check out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”

Column: Tragic Loss of “Artist”

Teaching Fraternity Loses an “Artist”


“There are two kinds of teachers,” the great poet Robert Frost said. “The kind that fill you with so much quail shot you can’t move, and the kind that just give you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.”


Like many, I was fortunate to have a handful that prodded me. Miss James, Mr. Ridland, Ms. Hutchings and Mr. McFadden meant the sky to me.

Chris Prewitt

Chris Prewitt


And not to me alone, for as Andy Rooney observed: “Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.”


            That figure seems on the low side for Chris Prewitt.


Indeed, he seems to have gently prodded so many earthbound young people to jump for the skies during his far-too-brief teaching career that a memorial service this morning at 10 a.m. is being held in the Buena High School football stadium.


            Prewitt was tragically killed at age 38 last Sunday morning when he was hit by a car during a 16-mile run training for a marathon. The driver, 23-year-old Shante Chappell, is accused of the heinous crime of driving under the influence of drugs.


Making the senseless heartbreak further unbearable is that Prewitt leaves behind his wife, Erin, and 7-year-old daughter, Isabella, with a road of missed milestones laying ahead – from elementary school plays to proms to graduations and marriage and more.


(People interested can contribute to a college fund for Isabella at and search for “Chris Prewitt.”)


It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you hear or read about a person and you not only wish you knew them – you feel at a loss because you don’t. Or didn’t. This is how I feel about Prewitt.


In a way, however, I feel like I did know this remarkable man because the outpouring of heartfelt words reminds me of how widely beloved one of my own favorite teachers was, the late Harold McFadden.


            Moreover, that Prewitt made such a profound impression on a number of people I know and revere – such as Trudy Tuttle Arriaga and Joe Vaughan – makes his loss resonate deeper.


Arriaga, superintendant of the Ventura Unified School District, told The Star: “He had a unique way of spreading his love of life.”


That passion spread to Emily Park, Foothill Tech’s 2013 valedictorian who now attends Wellesley College in Boston. Her most beautiful of eulogies, titled “A Recommendation For Mr. Prewitt To Enter Heaven” for, includes this line: “My dream is to have the work ethic, the positivity, the pure kindness, the leadership skills, and the effect on people that Mr. Prewitt had while he was living.”


Without question, Mr. Prewitt prodded Emily to jump for the skies.


“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings,” Carl Jung wrote. “The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”


It has become far too fashionable to blame teachers for the shortcomings in our educational system. While Prewitt was by all accounts exceptional, he still was not the exception. I guarantee you DeAnza Academy of Technology and Arts, where Prewitt was the assistant principal, has other brilliant teachers. Same for Foothill Tech, where Prewitt taught previously; and Buena High, where he coached water polo.


And every other school in Ventura County.


Because of one driver who didn’t belong on the road future classrooms will be diminished by not experiencing Prewitt’s vital warmth. This diminishes the future for all of us.


 “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists,” the word artist John Steinbeck said. “Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”


We have lost a great artist.


Chris Prewitt’s work, however, will live on in his former students – surely some who will become teachers and great “artists” themselves giving their students a little prod to jump for the skies.




Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at


Check out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”