Photos by Kenneth Ryan/Collegian
By Aaron Strain / Web Master
An illiterate and stuttering child’s dream of becoming a “60 Minutes” correspondent would seem to be as unlikely as a small mustard seed growing into a tree.
Byron Pitts achieved the ambition, and much more, in his 39 years in journalism.
During the inaugural speech of the 2020 Dillon Lecture Series, Pitts discussed his upbringing as the son of a poor single mother, his career covering wars and natural disasters, and the people who helped him along the way.
Growing up through economic and educational struggle
Pitts’ mother, Clarice, was a seamstress who never made more than $10,000 annually and was a strict Baptist.
“My mother could quote scripture with any church elder. She could also curse like any sailor,” Pitts said. “I wasn’t raised in Baltimore – I was raised in my mama’s house.”
Pitts said his mother and several strangers gave everything they had to ensure a better future for him.
Academics were always a struggle for Pitts. While his siblings were doing well in grade school, he was failing all his classes. Officials told his mom that, in their words, Byron was “mentally retarded and lacks the mental capacity to live a normal life.”
They suggested “placing him in an institution because you lack the resources to support your son” or bring him back when he became 18.
His mother, who had only a 10th grade education, told them that if she were to bring her son back at 18, he “would be dead or in prison.”
Pitts said it is cheaper to send someone to college for four years than to incarcerate them for one, and how poor people often end up in the latter. He quoted Frederick Douglass to explain his mother’s belief in the transformative power of education: “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Pitts also grew up with a stutter, which brought him “great pain and great shame” in his childhood. He said he now considers the stutter to be a blessing, because it taught him the value of silence, listening and empathy.
Pitts said his illiteracy and stutter were inspirations to “bring voice to the voiceless,” helping to spark his appreciation for journalism. “(As journalists), our job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
“I got an F in Freshman English…
and we wonder what’s wrong with journalism today”
Through these challenges, his mother did not give up hope. She kept a mustard seed with her, alluding to a parable in scripture about how faith the size of a mustard seed can move any mountain.
To her, “there was nothing that hard work, prayer, and, if need be, profanity couldn’t overcome,” Pitts said.
She was asked how a poor divorcee managed to send her three children to college, and she responded, “I told each child: you go to college or I will beat you to death.”
However, college continued to be challenging for Pitts.
“I failed every course. I got an F in Freshman English, (and) today I’m a professional journalist,” he said, “and we wonder what’s wrong with journalism today.”
He was starting to fill out withdrawal papers as a freshman when a new English professor pulled him to the side.
The professor was from Estonia, her family had fled violence in World War II, and she understood struggle. She offered Pitts unofficial tutoring, saving his academic career.
Pitts said that children from working-class families, including himself, are exposed to fewer words in their formative years than those from affluent families. Pitts’ dorm roommate, noticing his limited vocabulary, quizzed him on a new word from the dictionary every day.
Pitts’ book, “Step Out On Nothing,” describes all the times strangers helped him through his life.
Starting his career in broadcast journalism, Pitts moved to New York City. The first time he saw the World Trade Center was when it was on fire.
“In many ways, it was a stressful day, but it was also one of the most rewarding days of my career, one of the simplest,” Pitts said, “because it was only about telling people the facts. That’s it. Didn’t have to hype it … just work with what we know.”
His 9/11 coverage was one of the most important of his career and reaffirmed his belief in the importance of it.
“In that moment, (a man whose wife was missing in the rubble) could care less about how I felt about it, any danger I was in, my opinion,” Pitts said. “All he wanted, all he deserved, was information, facts, truth, detail. And that’s my job as a journalist.”
“Something that makes me uneasy still is indifference… When good and decent people who are blessed with opportunity and resource are indifferent to the needs of people around them in their communities.
“Indifference can be a deadly weapon.”
Pitts also spoke about an 11-year-old girl, Pilar, he met at a Baltimore elementary school. After other students had asked him if he had interviewed Beyonce or JayZ, Pilar asked him a stunning question: “When you were 11, where did you go, where did you hide when the world hurts too much?”
Unbeknownst to Pitts, she had grown up in a foster home under the care of an 81-year-old diabetic woman. Pilar’s mother left her 2-year-old daughter for a man and gave her to the care of extended family members, before being discovered by Child Protective Services.
Pilar treated the foster parent like her mother and took care of her.
One day, a teenage boy joined the foster home. Every night while she was asleep, he whispered in her ear, “You don’t matter. No one will care.”
Pitts told Pilar that angels walked the earth, and one would find her. As it turned out, he became one for her. Her teacher asked what Pilar had asked, and after an investigation, the boy was removed from the home.
Pitts said that there is a Pilar in everyone’s life, and that being a person who can say “come to me” when someone asks where they can hide is a powerful act of service.
Pitts reflected on his career in journalism. “I make my living covering death, and I’ve made my peace with that. But something that makes me uneasy still is indifference,” Pitts said. “When good and decent people who are blessed with opportunity and resource are indifferent to the needs of people around them in their communities. Life has taught me that indifference can be a deadly weapon.”