How Byron Pitts came out on top

Staff WriterDecember 17, 2009 

  • Who: Byron Pitts reads from his book, "Step Out on Nothing"

    When: 7:30 Friday

    Where: Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh

    Cost: free

    More info: quailridgebooks.com or 828-1588

Byron Pitts seemed destined for failure. Diagnosed as functionally illiterate at age 12, he grew up in a single-parent home and struggled with stuttering. And even after he overcame that and entered Ohio Wesleyan University, Pitts had a professor tell him he should quit because he wasn't cut out for college.

For all that, today Pitts is one of the most accomplished journalists in America - chief national correspondent for the CBS Evening News and a contributor to "60 Minutes." All it took was an immense amount of hard work and faith, aided by the kindness of strangers. Today he's a successful reporter and family man, and his stepson, WRAL television reporter Dan Bowens, is following him into the family business.

Pitts will tell his story and talk about his new book, "Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life's Challenges" (St. Martin's Press, 304 pages, $24.99), Friday at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books & Music. We caught up with him by phone.

Q: When you had a college professor tell you that you should drop out, was that hard to hear?

It was, and he wasn't the first person to doubt me - or the last. But it was a significant moment in my life. I was a freshman, and this professor told me I was not worthy: "You are not Ohio Wesleyan material. You're wasting my time and the government's money. You should leave."

So I went to fill out the paperwork to withdraw when I met a stranger, who saw me crying and stopped to help. She's an example of where the book's title comes from. She was a first-year professor with her own concerns, working on tenure. She's walking across campus, sees someone in distress and stops to help. She had nothing to gain but did it anyway. Her name is Ulle Lewes, from Estonia, and we remain close to this day. She was kind enough to stop and help, and she worked with me. She took the time to help me where the other guy just ... dismissed me.

Q: Did you ever meet up with that other professor again?

I did, when I spoke at Ohio Wesleyan four or five years ago. I looked him in the eye, gave a firm handshake and told him, 'Thank you. I would not be where I am today without you.' He sheepishly looked away, dropped his head and walked off. Yes, that was satisfying. But winners needn't be bitter. As related to him, I was victorious. No need to rub his face in it.

Q: I understand your mother lives in Apex. What other local ties do you have here?

I spent my summers growing up in Apex, and I interned at WTVD in Durham. I was Larry Stogner's intern, and I'm a huge fan. If I have a style, it's influenced as much by Larry Stogner as anyone else. He's wise, skeptical, curious, cares deeply about people and values the power of words.

Q: Was growing up in Baltimore as grim as what the show "The Wire" depicts?

It certainly is like that now, but it wasn't then. I grew up in blue-collar Baltimore when it was a shipyard city. My mom went back to college and became a social worker. She made a modest living and spent her career providing services to other people. I was very young when my parents split, so my dad was not an active part of my youth. That's one reason I went to Apex during the summer, to give my mom a respite.

Q: How did you overcome your stutter?

A professor who ran the speech department worked with me. He got me a job at the radio station on campus - an odd place for a stutterer - and he'd have me record with pencils in my mouth. I'd read the newspaper, Shakespeare, wire copy, all backward so that I'd focus on the sound of the words as opposed to sentence structure. I did breathing exercises. And I came up with a list of words I struggled with, plus an alternate list of words to replace them. Ice tea was one I had trouble with, which was painful for a boy who loved sweet tea. Kool Aid was another, "K-K-K-Kool Aid." So I replaced that with "soda," which became a "safe" place for me. It wasn't sophisticated, based on what's being done now to help people manage their stuttering. But it worked.

Q: Does the stutter ever come back?

Sure. My triggers are if I'm nervous, tired, anxious, frightened - some combination of which is hard to avoid in a place like Afghanistan or Iraq. I've learned to prepare as best I can. I exercise all the time. Not for cosmetic reasons, but I need to be as fit as I can to help manage my stutter. If I'm run-down, it's more likely to happen. It hasn't happened on the air in a very long time. There are still words I avoid.

Q: What's some work besides Iraq and the 2001 terrorist attacks that stands out?

Covering the tsunami in Indonesia meant a great deal. I've covered a lot of bad news in my career, and usually the disaster is isolated. Even Baghdad, as awful as it is, you can find a peaceful street. But after the tsunami hit, hundreds and hundreds of miles just looked the same. I've never covered a disaster that was so widespread. But I felt good about what we did to make that a human story relevant to people in Fuquay-Varina, Apex, Durham, Cary.

Whenever I've gone overseas, I've not necessarily done my best work, but I've learned more because the stakes are so high. It's physically demanding and mentally stressful, but it's important. It's not every day in our profession that you get to do important work.

Q: What's it like being at "60 Minutes"?

My goal since I was 18 was to get to "60 Minutes," so it's a dream come true. When I was Larry Stogner's intern, chasing him around Raleigh, I talked about working for "60 Minutes" someday. The few people fortunate enough to get there tend to stay. It would be an honor to stay at "60 Minutes" for the remainder of my career. For my money, it's the gold standard of broadcast journalism, like playing for the Yankees. There's so much to learn and a severe learning curve. It's nice to be in an environment where you have to think about it every day.

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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