When You Absolutely, Positively Have to Have It Five Minutes Ago: Working with Chuck Colson

SEMPER QUAERENS

“Anne! It’s Chuck! How ya doin’?”

That staccato voice was familiar from the nearly 18 years I’d worked at Prison Fellowship Ministries as a writer for a radio program called BreakPoint. It was my boss, the one-time Watergate felon who founded Prison Fellowship Ministries after getting out of prison himself. I grabbed a pen and pad of paper to scribble notes on Chuck’s latest idea for his daily four-minute BreakPoint.

Since Chuck’s death, many have written about his days as a White House “hatchet man,” his dramatic conversion to Christianity, and his founding of an international prison ministry. I want to write about what it was like to work with him on BreakPoint commentaries.

Chuck began BreakPoint in order to help Christians think “Christianly” about everything from embryo-destructive research to animal rights, to art, marriage, music, and Darwinism. We’d meet about once a month around a conference room table to discuss ideas for the program. The meetings could become a bit boisterous as Chuck and a lively group of writers argued through ideas. I usually tried to sit across the table from Chuck, because our tactile boss had a habit of tapping the arm of his neighbor with his pen, or kind of smacking our forearms to emphasize a point (I bruise easily).

In between meetings, Chuck would often read something in the newspapers, or run into somebody interesting at an airport, or have a conversation with a prison warden, and call to dictate a story he thought would make a great script. Or, he would dictate his ideas to his personal assistant, and then we would receive one of the dreaded “orange-grams”: A memo on orange paper about a script that he usually wanted right now—unless he changed his mind, of course. My colleague Roberto Rivera complained only half-jokingly that Chuck had given him Attention Deficit Disorder with his habit of asking for a particular script, and then calling back an hour later to say, stop working on that script and give me this script instead. Right away!

Chuck frequently traveled overseas to meet with members of Prison Fellowship International, and he would sometimes call me from, say, Romania, so excited about a new story for BreakPoint that he wanted to tell me immediately so I could have a script waiting for him when he got back.

One of Chuck’s more amusing foibles, which we often joked about, was a comment he regularly made about script ideas: “It’ll write itself!” (Really, Chuck? Then why are you assigning it to ME?)

During the years I was managing editor of BreakPoint, Chuck would occasionally call me at home to dictate something straight out of that afternoon’s news reports—something he wanted to broadcast the following day. This meant I sometimes had to compose a script for him in less than an hour in order to make the 5 p.m. recording deadline, fending off my children’s complaints that they were hungry, and when were we going to have dinner?

Now and then Chuck would come up with an idea we thought was awful, and we tried to squirm out of writing it. At the next recording session, we’d simply give him other scripts we thought were better. This strategy of selective amnesia often worked for weeks—and then he would suddenly turn to one of us and say, “Whatever happened to that script about . . . ?” But he was so busy that he often forgot about many of his script ideas, or simply wanted to move on to a “new idee-er,” as he put it in his Boston accent.

Several of his writers worked for Chuck for so long that we knew exactly what he would want to say about a particular issue—he was, after all, a good teacher. But one of my colleagues told me it was becoming a bit creepy that I was even putting in Chuck’s ad-libs for him.

Over the years, we tried hard to draw Chuck away from politically oriented scripts to do more worldview-related scripts on art, music, and science. But he loved politics, and found it hard to resist the temptation to comment on everything going on in Washington.

He famously hated the animal rights movement and how its philosophy had infected Christian theology; it drove him crazy when he learned of pastors who preached that our pets would go to Heaven, or even of Christians who asked their Bible study friends to pray for pets that were about to undergo surgery. His writers would often e-mail around the latest story in which one celebrity or other announced that animals had the same value as people (if not more), and that a law ought to be passed to that effect, but we did our best to keep them away from Chuck, lest we find ourselves drafting yet another script on the subject.

Chuck was well aware of his audience’s quirks. Some years ago he asked his writers to pull together a list of great films for his listening audience. Knowing how much he’d loved the recently released Saving Private Ryan, I added it to the list. When Chuck went over the list at the next editorial meeting, he turned to me in mock horror, his eyes twinkling. “Anne! I can’t have R-rated movies on my list! I’m a famous evangelical!” He knew perfectly well that, were he to include any R-rated films, no matter how excellent the content, he would receive letters of complaint from overly sensitive listeners who seemed unable to look any further than a film’s rating.

Chuck loved to tease people, and some of his pranks were legendary. I had a taste of his sense of humor a few years ago when I applied for a job in government, one requiring a background check. Chuck called me up one day to tell me that the FBI had informed him that their investigation of me had uncovered something pretty serious, and that because of it, I would not get the job. I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. (Was it that unpaid parking ticket in Atlanta?) And then I heard laughter coming down the telephone line. Just one of his little jokes.

Chuck often opened meetings with a story of someone he encountered in his travels around the world who told him how much he had learned from BreakPoint. I think it was comments like these that kept him going, although a daily radio program was difficult, given his heavy schedule.

As for me, after nearly two decades and hundreds of scripts, I still became absurdly pleased when I heard that Chuck had particularly liked something I wrote.

I still haven’t gotten used to him being gone. I think of things I want to tell him, or make a mental note to get his opinion on something, and then remember he’s not there anymore. He helped me so many times, whether it was introducing me to Rep. Frank Wolf, who needed help writing a book, or giving me advice on how to market an Angel Tree children’s story I’d written. Just a few days ago, I read something amusing and thought, “This would make a great BreakPoint script”—and then recalled that Chuck was no longer here to record it. The last time we spoke was when he phoned to pray with me when he heard I had been diagnosed with cancer.

I know I will see him again one day. I hope his face will be among those I see first when I arrive in Heaven—and that he will greet me with a grin and a hearty “Anne! It’s Chuck! How ya doin’?”

Anne Morse is a writer for BreakPoint.


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