Charles Colson

We all know what Scott Fitzgerald said about second acts in American lives. And most of us can cite examples that belie the great writer’s grand assertion.

One of those lives, one of those second acts, passed from the scene the other day. Charles Colson once said that he feared what he might have become had he not gone to prison. But because he did, he transformed his life. He became a tireless minister to incarcerated men and women around the world, and the group he founded, Prison Fellowship Ministries, has offered solace and inspiration to hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

Mr. Colson, who died at the age of 80 last week, spent the first act of his life in politics, where he gained the attention of Richard Nixon in the 1950s. When Mr. Nixon became president, Mr. Colson gleefully took on the role of professional hatchet man. He said that he would “walk over my own grandmother” if it would help re-elect Mr. Nixon in 1972. He compiled a list of Mr. Nixon’s enemies, and helped create a culture of dirty tricks and sleazy politics that led to the Watergate scandal.

Mr. Colson was sent to prison for obstruction of justice in 1973. He became an evangelical Christian and, after prodding by a question from the late Mike Wallace about the morality of his past political actions, Mr. Colson began his remarkable second act as a counselor to those in despair.

Truth be told, there was a great deal of skepticism about Mr. Colson’s new life. Many at the time believed it was a mere ploy, yet another dirty trick authored by a master of the art. But Mr. Colson let his work speak for itself. He founded Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976, and it quickly became a national and then an international movement. The group currently ministers to prisoners in more than 100 countries.

Mr. Colson’s ministry also works with prisoners after they have been released, when they, too, must compose a second act for their lives. And Mr. Colson himself became a strong voice on behalf of prison reform, arguing for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

Charles Colson’s transformation from henchman to humanitarian helped others transform their lives as well. There are, it seems, plenty of second acts in American lives.