Grace: Byron Pitts

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March 16, 2012

Byron Pitts at Medaille College in 2011The favorite word in Byron Pitts’ vocabulary is grace.

The CBS News correspondent and "60 Minutes" contributor demonstrated before and after a speech at Medaille College on Oct. 3 that the word perfectly fits Pitts.

Pitts was extraordinarily gracious as he talked to Medaille students, faculty members and members of the community at a book signing in the school library before the speech.

He gave everyone on the lengthy line a minute or a two -- or five -- of his time as he autographed his 2009 book, Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenges.

Pitts, whose book was chosen as Medaille’s first-year summer reading selection, had as many or more questions for faculty members and students stepping up to talk to him as they had for him. He shared experiences, talked with faculty about mutual friends and his love of Baltimore, and asked students where they live and where their dreams for a career will take them.

When a student said she wanted to be a TV or radio talk show host, Pitts followed up with a perennial question: "what’s your plan?"

It’s his favorite question. He asked it to just about everyone in line who wanted their book autographed.

Pitts was supposed to be at the gym at 6 p.m. That plan needed amending because he was so gracious with his time. He was a few minutes late, but he didn’t disappoint the packed crowd after he arrived.

He immediately told the crowd he planned to talk for 20 minutes, which anyone who watched the book signing realized is 40 minutes in Pitts Time.

The late, great "60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt modeled the legendary show that Pitts is now a part of with a simple philosophy for his correspondents to keep in mind: "Tell me a story."

True to this statement, Pitts had quite an entertaining and inspiring story to tell and used poet 

Maya Angelou and such noted philosophers as baseball legend Yogi Berra and football great Deion Sanders to help tell it.

During his inspirational and optimistic speech, Pitts threw out several phrases that would likely inspire greeting cards. The chief among them is "every dream has an address."

"You have to have a plan to get there," he explained. 

Though he brought some notes, Pitts didn’t refer to them as he walked the stage and told the story of how a 12-year-old who was misdiagnosed as mentally retarded eventually lived his dream to become a "60 Minutes" correspondent and also interviewed six presidents and covered three wars.

The self-deprecating Pitts realized he wasn’t in the best position when he told fellow students at Ohio Wesleyan University that his dream was to work on "60 Minutes." 

"I wrote that as a freshman on academic probation," Pitts told the crowd to laughter.

He wasn’t done with the self-deprecation. He later added: "I failed freshman English and went on to "60 Minutes.’"  

One of his professors even told Pitts that he wasn’t college material and advised him to withdraw. He broke down and cried, thinking about the single mother who had sacrificed so much for him and all the people that he had failed.

"These weren’t Hollywood tears," he said. "These were shoulder-shaking, head-bobbing, nose-running kind of tears."

Fortunately, he met a stranger who "stepped out on nothing." It’s a phrase that Pitts first heard in church and means faith sustains one in difficult times. The stranger had faith in Pitts and persuaded him to give it the old college try and to continue to pursue his dream. 

"Never underestimate the power of a kind word," said Pitts."She didn’t simply change my life, she saved my life," said Pitts.

She wasn’t the only one there for Pitts when he needed encouragement or a kick in the pants. He said he was driven by his fear that he would let down his mother and family. He also feels he owes his brother, who took an extra job while he was in college to make it easier for him to study. Pitts also appreciated his college roommate, an upper-class student from Minnesota who couldn’t have been more different than an African-American teenager who grew up in inner-city Baltimore. His roommate helped Pitts expand his vocabulary by giving him a dictionary word each day to learn for four years. 

Pitts needed all the help he could get as a first-generation college student who had many people rooting for him to be successful. He eventually realized that hard work and determination can pay off.

"In some ways, my story is your story," Pitts told students.

An optimistic man of faith, Pitts gave students one warning about the danger of being indifferent.

"I’ve learned that indifference can be a deadly weapon," he said. "That good and decent people take their gifts and do nothing with them... So do not be indifferent about your gifts, your opportunities."

Many in the crowd felt that hearing Pitts was a gift.

"He gave a very genuine message that resonates," said Mary Ellen Mulvey, Ph.D., senior director of instructional support and community partnerships at Medaille. "He is giving students and everybody here a hopeful thought. I love ‘every dream has an address.’ I think you can take that away from the speech."

Heidi Raphael ’85, a member of Medaille’s board of trustees, also loved the "every dream has an address" quote. 

"I’m going to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about that," said Raphael. "I think what he said was a great blueprint for the students and it can be applied anywhere. I think he is fantastic."

Chatham Marcolini, a junior majoring in communication, was impressed by Pitts as well.

"I thought he was very interesting and energized the audience," said Marcolini. "Being a communication major, he gave me a good picture of what it is like to get to this point in his career."

Jonathan Sherman, another junior communication major, expected to hear more from Pitts about what it is like working in broadcasting, but enjoyed the speech anyway.

"I thought it was motivational," said Sherman, "coming from a place (Baltimore) that is like Buffalo. And he failed freshman English. He made the point it doesn’t really matter where you come from and where you go to school."

Before he finished, Pitts gave out a final gift to everyone attending - his email address. The journalist whose life could make for a Hollywood movie that could leave viewers in "nose-running tears" told everyone that he’d be happy to help everyone with their dream in any way he can.

But he couldn’t avoid making one more dig at himself. He added that now that he is 50, he might need a reminder if he doesn’t respond within a few days.

- Alan Pergament.

This content originally appeared in the winter 2011-12 issue of the Medaille Magazine.

photo by Kara Kane

 

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