Charlie Prewitt’s 93 years have been a long and winding journey — from witnessing racial prejudice while growing up in southern Indiana in the 1920s, to helping build an atomic bomb during World War II, to a career promoting peace and human rights.
Through it all, the Mansfield resident credits one person with his transformation from atomic scientist to active pacifist: his wife, Virginia.
“If I had married someone who had the same attitude as me and supported me, I probably would have that same attitude today. I’d be racist and conservative. But Virginia, slowly and gently, over 65 years, changed me.”
In the summer before his senior year as a chemistry major at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., Prewitt was teaching a chemistry course, when a “vision of loveliness” — a student named Virginia Stewart — walked into his classroom.
Two weeks later he asked her out on a date. Two weeks after that, they were engaged. And in the summer of 1941 they were married in Lexington.
In the fall of 1941, Charlie was recruited for the U.S. government’s secret Manhattan Project, whose work led to the development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 to end World War II. The project initially sent him to work as a chemist at an Army facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where Virginia would also be employed. Later on, they were transferred to Hanford, Wash.
Prewitt says that from the beginning of the project he had reservations about building “a bomb that could blow up a whole city.” He and some other chemists wanted to stop their work, but were told by their superiors that if they quit, they “would be drafted and sent right back to their same desks. We had families, so we stayed,” Prewitt said. The day after the war ended, “I quit.”
The natural sciences, Prewitt said, “discovered how to destroy all life on Earth.” So after the war, Charlie and Virginia decided to teach social sciences. “If there was any contribution we could make, it would be as educators.”
In 1952 Prewitt began teaching at Eastern Connecticut State University. He retired in 1979 but continues to teach peace and human rights part time, as well as attending weekly peace vigils.
Last September, ECSU dedicated the Virginia and Charles Prewitt Office of Peace and Human Rights and a foundation has been created in Charlie’s and Virginia’s names to provide scholarships for students demonstrating an interest in peace and human rights.
Virginia died in 2007.
“The greatest gain in my life was marrying her,” says Prewitt. “The greatest loss of my life was losing her.”