Erika Winkler was a beautiful 17 year old girl from Appleton, Wisconsin. According to her obituary, Erika loved to hunt with her dad and family. She enjoyed swimming, country music, her big truck, spending time with the cows on her favorite farm, theater, dance, playing guitar and piano. She loved God’s Word and fellowship. Erika had a loving, supportive family. And when Erika took her own life on December 29, 2016, her father, John Winkler, says being bullied over her Christian faith was one of the reasons why.
John Winkler reached out to me after I discussed on my radio show controversy surrounding an Appleton school board member, The Reverend Alvin Dupree. Several school district residents wrote Superintendent Judith Basemen, complaining that Dupree spoke to the Outagamie Co. Republican party and made numerous religious references in an Appleton North High School commencement address in spring of 2017. One of those letters came from Outagamie County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lee Snodgrass:
Rev. Dupree was a featured speaker(at graduation) and he opened with an exploitative story about the family of a recent suicide victim where he referenced their looking to god (sic) for strength. He then delivered a very sermon-like message where he spoke of his devotion to Jesus and God as what makes him great. He mentioned Good(we are presuming she meant “God”) Lord or Jesus no less that (sic) 5 times in a a public high school graduation ceremony.
As for Dupree invoking God in a public ceremony, Appleton Post-Crescent columnist Brian Farmer points out that nobody should be shocked that school board member Alvin Dupree and the Reverend Alvin Dupree are the same person.
Pastor Dupree was speaking for himself in quoting Jesus Christ. When a religious leader of the community is invited to speak at a high school graduation, one should expect him to speak like a religious leader. In a free society, which ours professes to be, people should be free to express their faith. Snodgrass seems to think that Pastor Dupree should be allowed to speak that way only behind closed doors on Sunday morning.
I read Snodgrass’ entire letter on my radio show. Her comment about Dupree sharing “an exploitative story about the family of a recent suicide victim,” drew a call from John Winkler, letting us know that Snodgrass was referring to his daughter, Erika. The next day, Winkler appeared on the air to respond to Snodgrass calling Dupree’s words about Erika “exploitative.”
“Actually, I’m pretty shocked that he did. I didn’t know nothing about it. We were not at the graduation. We were invited and we chose not to go. It just hurt too much. And to find out that he did, I’m actually pretty proud of it. That’s one of the things she was bullied about (her religious faith). There are multi things that caused her suicide. Religion is one of them. She got made fun of what she believed…Our ministry researches and teaches what the Bible says… She was very clear about what she learned and what she had seen herself and that caused a conflict with other people, I think.”
Winkler says Erika was very strong in her faith: “She knew what the Bible says. She knew who God was. She knew what the Bible says about God and Jesus Christ, and there was nothing that was going to change that.” Winkler says he doesn’t consider Dupree’s mention of their story as being exploitative, and said it was indeed their faith that got them through losing her. ” That’s the only thing that got us through what happened to us with Ericka. And with him saying that, it’s true: we do lean on our religion and on our faith in God to get us through tough times.”
Winkler says that after Ericka’s death he and his wife sat down with the school board and other school officials and shared their concerns, telling them about the bullying. And he says the treatment Ericka received from others over her faith illustrate’s why Dupree has to be supported when he shares his faith publicly: ” Everybody knew who he was before he was elected. If people vote, they have some knowledge of who they’re voting for. People aren’t stupid. And they have their own personal reasons. And if that person gets voted in there is a reason why their voted in. That’s the majority, that’s how our system works.”
With the first anniversary of his daughter’s death approaching, Winkler conceded that it was very difficult to speak publicly about it. But he said he reached out because he felt it was necessary:
“I felt that something she felt so strongly about, needed to be heard. And if there is a gentleman on the school board sticking that is sticking up for that, whether he is a pastor or whether he is not, whoever he may be, and he’s standing up for that right that my daughter believed in, obviously this is belief in God. You know what; I’m there to back him up.”
Snodgrass, in her letter to Superintendent Judy Baseman, said: “I hope that the administrative leadership of the district will confront this member and let him know that this will not be tolerated.” Winkler hopes Dupree continues speaking out:
“He should not step down. He should continue is work, you know, within the guidelines of what his position is. But he has that opportunity and if he feels that’s the thing to do, well it’s part of our lives. And there are a lot of people in the school district, who do believe the same as he does.”
I closed the radio interview by telling John I know that Erika is proud of him and I hope that gives him some comfort. His reply: “Yes it does. And we will see her again.”