Journalist Pitts credits faith, family for success
BY ROSE RUSSELL
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Byron Pitts’ story is bound to compel anyone who makes excuses for not overcoming obstacles to get busy clearing their personal hurdles.
When Pitts speaks at Tuesday’s Authors! Authors!, the audience is sure to be captivated by his accomplishments as an internationally recognized journalist, when at age 12 he was functionally illiterate and at 20 he had yet to overcome stuttering.
Pitts, 50, chief national correspondent for CBS News with Katie Couric, is the author of Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenges. Also a contributor to 60 Minutes, he will speak at the McMaster Center at the Main Library at 7 p.m.
The winner of six regional Emmy awards and a national Emmy, four Associated Press awards, and a National Association of Black Journalists Award, Pitts takes none of the credit for his success. He says his achievements are the result of his “relationship with God. I don’t consider myself lucky, but I consider myself blessed.”
“While I work hard, my life is less a measure of how hard I work, but it is a measure of God’s grace,” said Pitts, whose home is in Weehawken, N.J.
His mother, Clarice Pitts, who lives in North Carolina, was a strict disciplinarian who was another key to his achievements. She bucked the idea of putting him in an institution after a doctor said he was developmentally disabled. And rather than give up and give in to the fact that her son faced monumental academic challenges, she made it her business to ensure that he would be a success.
Not a shred of embarrassment is detected in Pitts when he talks about his stuttering.
“Stuttering doesn’t go away. I still stutter,” he said during a telephone interview when he was traveling from the nation’s capital to New York. “I just learned to manage it.”
But he didn’t do it by himself. Pitts was in undergraduate school at Ohio Wesleyan University when a speech communications professor gave him exercises and challenged him to minimize his stuttering. Pitts recalls putting pencils in his mouth and reading articles. That forced him to speak more slowly to articulate as clearly as he could, and to better understand how his mouth shaped the correct sounds of words. A job at a radio station at the university helped him to confront stuttering head-on.
Though there’s no trace that Pitts stutters, that’s because he continues to manage it by keeping from getting angry, nervous, or tired, and by avoiding certain words, such as those that begin with the letters “t” or “sh.”
In his profession, however, sometimes there is no getting by some words.
“I don’t always have the luxury of avoiding them,” said Pitts, who graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism and speech communications in 1982. “But if I know they are coming up, I prepare myself.” He does that by making sure he gets plenty of rest and remains in good shape.
“I don’t argue often. That’s a trigger for me. I exercise a lot. Because of my professor, I know it’s important to be rested and fit. That’s why I need to rest and exercise and minimize the chances of stuttering,” he said.
By the time he entered college, though, Pitts had already tackled one obstacle to learning. He was not identified as being functionally illiterate until he was 12. At that time, he was tested to determine why he performed poorly in math. Test results revealed that he lacked adequate reading skills.
“Children learn to read from birth to age 7, and from age 7 on, they read to learn. I didn’t learn all the mechanics of reading. Then, when it was time to read to learn, I was falling further behind,” he said. He explained that though he was not a stellar academic student, he was passed ahead from grade to grade because he did plenty of extra credit work.
He got over the reading hurdle with the help of his parents, who tutored him after they were trained in how to do so.
Married and the father of six children from ages 30 to 18, Pitts did not just one day decide to write his autobiography. In 2007, while covering George W. Bush, the former president was late for a visit to a Harlem charter school. The school’s headmaster asked Pitts to talk to the students to help pass the time.
Those youngsters probably wondered whether Pitts could identify with life in their urban neighborhoods. But he told them he grew up in a working-class family in East Baltimore, and about his reading deficiency and speech impediment.
A public relations figure in the audience heard the talk and notified the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, who was a colleague of Pitts but who didn’t know about his background. A Post story by Kurtz eventually attracted the interest of a publisher and to Pitts’ book.
A full itinerary covering major national and world events leaves little time for much else on Pitts’ schedule. However, he’s committed to spending time with his family, mentoring young people where he went to school, a boys’ Catholic high school, Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore, and at his church, St. Paul Baptist in Montclair, N.J., where his wife, Lyne, heads the homeless ministry.
The speakers’ series is sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. Tickets for Authors! Authors! are $10, $8 for students, and available at the door and at branch libraries. Pitts will speak at 7 p.m. at the McMaster Center at the Main Library, 325 North Michigan St. Information: 419-259-5266.