By Prioleau Alexander
Walt Pantovich and Bishop Alex Dickson, lifelong friends. Image by Charleston Mercury Staff.
I’ve heard it preached that God does not make bad things happen … but when they do, He redeems them for good. This is one such story.
In 2001, Walt Pantovich, an immigrant from Serbia, was in Pawleys Island, working on home renovations for retired Bishop Alex Dickson. He began work a week earlier than planned and happened to have an assistant on hand, something he normally did not.
While he and his assistant were cutting boards, he saw Bishop Dickson walk past on the way to the dock to feed watermelon rinds to the crabs. A few minutes later, over the roar of the circular saw, he heard someone say his name. If you’ve ever run a circular saw, you’d know this is impossible.
He beckoned his assistant to accompany him while he investigated, and as he approached the dock saw the bishop had fallen off the dock and was lying motionless atop steel and wooden pilings. Because his assistant was there, Walt was able to dispatch him to call 911 while he climbed the bulkhead to render aid to the bishop.
“I remember calling his name,” says Bishop Dickson, “but we both agree it was impossible for him to hear me.”
The EMT responders arrived and disagreed as to whether or not the bishop was alive; thanks be to God, they stopped debating and took him to the hospital, where he recovered completely.
Bishop Dickson and Walt became fast friends after the incident, and the bishop began witnessing to Walt. Walt wasn’t ready to hear the Good News yet but enjoyed the bishop’s company, and slowly he began to understand he needed to straighten out his life and break from the bad influences dragging him down.
Then, tragedy struck. Although Walt was stepping away from the fast lane, his girlfriend was not, and one night she returned home in a drug-and-alcohol-fueled rage and for reasons unknown attacked Walt. He struck back and killed her. He was charged with first-degree murder.
While Walt was in the county jail, Bishop Alex visited him as frequently as possible, continuing to explain the Gospel and the forgiveness Christ offers.
“In 2006, I gave my life to Christ,” Walt says, “and began over as written in Corinthians 5:17.”
“I’ve seen a lot of so-called jailhouse conversions,” Bishop Alex says, “and Walt’s was the real deal.”
Walt was subsequently convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 years. Throughout the trial he had two visitors sitting directly behind him — Bishop Alex Dickson and Bishop Fitz Allison.
In 2010, he enrolled in the prison’s Bible college and graduated in 2012; shortly thereafter he began deploying with a team of other Christians to different prisons to teach and offer encouragement to prisoners while spreading the news of a new life in Christ. He volunteered for the some of the most difficult assignments, like working to bring peace between rival gangs and serving the mentally ill. All the while, Bishop Dickson visited him once a month.
In early 2020, Walt heard on the loudspeaker that he was to report to the central office — never a good call to hear. He assumed he was going to be accused of some sort of infraction of the rules.
When he got there, he heard words he never thought he’d hear: The South Carolina Supreme Court had overruled his manslaughter conviction based on the fact his trial judge refused to allow people who knew Walt to testify as to his character. As a result, he was to be released.
Walt immediately connected with the ministry FreshStart, founded by Tim Terry — a former inmate himself who saw firsthand how difficult it was to transition from prison back into mainstream life.
“Fresh Start is a miracle,” Walt says. “There are three common problems that result in so many felons returning to jail: They have no money, no job, and are viewed by most as outcasts. Fresh Start helps with all of those things. They asked for a one-year commitment to the program, and I saw the chance for a real second chance. I didn’t hesitate to agree.”
Fresh Start uses a series of programs to help transition these men, beginning with the very basics: the importance of having a job, showing up on time and working hard, then paying bills and operating within the boundaries of society most of us view as instinctual.
“I was a successful contractor,” says Walt, “so I knew all of these things — but it was a critical education for some of the men. They’d never participated in what we call ‘normal’ society in any way.”
As part of the Fresh Start program, Walt was able to utilize the job training scholarships they offer and earned a commercial driver’s license. He applied for a job with Tosha, LLC, a precious metal recycling company owned by a strong Christian named Tony Ramirez.
“Most people won’t hire a convicted felon,” Walt said. “But when I told Mr. Ramirez about my record, he just asked if I’d served my time. I said yes, and he said that was good enough for him. He took a chance on me.
“That’s what I want people to learn from my life — there’s always hope for the future,” he continued. “Too many people just give up, but with Jesus there’s always hope. There’s always a way to start over.”
Walt began attending church with Bishop Dickson and the bishop’s wife, Jane, at St. James Anglican near their home at Bishop Gadsden, and they eventually told him about an Anglican church near his home in North Charleston — Church of the Resurrection, pastored by the Rev. Mark Avera.
“Walt showed up the first day of our 2020 Alpha course when we were hosting a fish fry,” says Father Avera. “No sooner had we met than Walt began serving the other guests. He’s a natural evangelist and encourager. He’s now serving as a lay eucharist and as a lay reader. He’s been a great addition to our church family.”
“My family wants nothing to do with me,” says Walt. “But Father Mark invited me to his home for Christmas.”
The story of Walt’s redemption doesn’t end here, however, because God is calling him into greater things … and He’s doing so through the friendship He arranged between Walt and Bishop Dickson.
You see, Bishop Dickson has for many years been involved with a mission program in Liberia — first with a mentor named Father Stevens and now through his “man on the ground,” Joe Namy. A retired naval officer, Joe has done powerful and tireless work for their flock in Liberia but realizes it’s time to begin slowing down.
His replacement? Walt hopes it will be him, and is accompanying Joe on his next trip. He wants to learn the ropes and step in to fill Joe’s shoes.
“I want to leave a legacy,” Walt says. “I built a good reputation as a builder, but that’s gone. I have five children and 15 grandchildren but have no relationship with them. I’d like my legacy to be one of serving the Lord and serving others. That would be a good legacy.”
Yes, it would, Brother Walt. And it will be a legacy with eternal ramifications.
If you are moved by the story of Walt Pantovich, please become part of the next success story. To learn more or provide financial support, please visit FreshStartVisions.org.