RON WIKBERG is the first prisoner I ever became friends with. He was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in the most violent prison in America — the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Ron was convicted in 1969 in the killing of a grocery clerk in a holdup. He served 23 years in Angola, trained there as a paralegal and was released two years ago after undoing his life term through a legal loophole that he had found.
Ron and I connected when I was a freshman in high school. I was doing some research on prison overcrowding for the debate team, and through a somewhat bizarre set of events got connected to Ron. We wrote regularly and spoke on the phone about once a year — always on Super Bowl Sunday, though I am not sure why.
While it started as a research project, we actually developed a kind of friendship through our letters and writing. When Ron got out of prison (through a legal loop hole), I got to meet him in person. We spent New Year’s weekend together at his home in Maryland my senior year in high school. He died about 6 months after that of cancer.
I wasn’t a Christian when I first started writing wrong, but became one during that time. In our letters we talked a lot about religion, spirituality, race, politics and life. He also wasn’t a believer when we started talking, but became one before his death.
I learned a lot from Ron… about failure, redemption, grace, second chances — as well as things about writing and media and social policy.
I remember that Ron was the first person I ever came out to, as a sophomore in high school. I figured that (a) I was never going to actually meet him (after all, he had a life sentence without parole), and (b) he was a murderer living with rapists and thieves and all-around bad people… so how judgmental could he be with me?
He wasn’t judgmental at all. I still remember his response: “Some people like vanilla and some like chocolate — and how will you know until you try both.”
I am not 100% sure exactly what that means nor that it is good advice to a 15 year old… but I experienced grace and acceptance through it.
Anyway, in a strange way, Ron was a pretty influential guy in my life and I am thankful for that. I think he coached me in the centrality of grace, compassion and the idea that everyone has a story… and it is more than what you think it is.
Those are lessons I carried into ministry and carry today.
I also learned another good lesson from Ron: Good people do bad things and bad people do good things.
Or in other words, WE ARE ALL A MIXED BAG.
Ron taught me never to dismiss a person or allow their greatest failures to define them. I hold to that lesson today.