CBS Reporter Byron Pitts Chronicles Faith in New Book

Growing up in the inner city and being functionally illiterate with a stuttering problem could easily be viewed as a recipe for, at best, a lifelong struggle for survival. For Byron Pitts nothing could be further from the truth. Pitts’ challenging upbringing ultimately didn’t hold him back from success as a nationally recognized journalist. Pitts is chief national correspondent for CBS News and a contributor to the gold standard of television news magazines, “60 Minutes.” He won an Emmy Award for his coverage of 9/11 and has reported for CBS from Iraq and Afghanistan. This remarkable journey happened with a deep abiding faith which Pitts chronicles in his book “Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Help Me Conquer Life’s Challenges.” Pitts’ parents separated when he was 12 years old, leaving him in the care of his mother Clarice in the heart of Baltimore. “When all around her said, ‘Give up on your child,’ she kept believing,” Pitts recalled. “I’m sure she often doubted herself, but she never doubted God. She didn’t simply settle at providing a roof over my head, food on the table and a chance at an education. She dreamed of more for her children and pushed to make that happen.” Playing off the book title, Pitts said she was one of many in his adolescence and young adulthood who stepped out on nothing but their faith. “My mother says that those teachers and school administrators probably still remember her in Baltimore because she was relentless with her phone calls and personal visits,” Pitts said, “and remember she was an African-American woman, oftentimes dealing with an infrastructure that was overwhelmingly white and male.” In retrospect Pitts is still haunted by the attitudes of others outside his immediate family growing up. “It also saddens me still to remember how sad and frightened I often was as a child,” Pitts said. “I was taught to put on a good face and not to complain, but inside I so often felt inadequate. And inadequacy is a fear all its own. While some people labeled me slow or stupid, one adult used to call me a bum, honestly, a bum. “Feeling that I didn’t belong often left me discouraged. It fell to my mother, brother and sister most often to fight for that little boy. I wish now I could go back in time and fight for him too. That saddens me. It saddens me to know there are thousands of children today who feel that same level of fear and despair and, too many, experience far worse. If they only had just one adult in their life as I had.” That array of adults and peers who helped Pitts along expanded when he attended Ohio Wesleyan University. Among them were a Minnesotan, Peter Holthe, and a professor, Dr. Ulle Lewes, whose unsolicited help at critical times allowed Pitts to see God’s hand at work. “Somehow God put us (Holthe and Pitts) together,” he said. “Like so many others, Pete saw my needs and found the courage and kindness to help. Pete recognized I had a very limited vocabulary for a college freshman. He offered to give me a new word from the dictionary every day. I was to spell it, define it and use it in a sentence. It was a simple enough exercise, but it made a tremendous difference. Pete’s kindness is also testament to how all of us can make a difference in someone else’s life by using the talents that God gave each of us for the good. We remain close friends today. Lewes made contact with Pitts during what he said was one of the worst moments of his life while filling out paperwork to drop out of Ohio Wesleyan. “She offered her help and her academic guidance and she over time she turned my college experience around,” he said. “Ulle is not a religious person, but she acknowledges some sort of spiritual force might have been at work with our meeting. She truly changed my life.” The faith Pitts learned from his family and saw concrete evidence of during college sustained him through a 15-year process of local television reporting before ascending to the national spotlight. “There certainly were no shortcuts,” Pitts said. “That was certainly one of the benefits of my early struggles with literacy and speech: I learned there are no shortcuts in life and that’s OK by me. It took me 15 years to finally arrive on the national stage at CBS. I honestly can’t single out any single event. I’d like to believe it was my body of work. “I certainly needed every moment of those 15 years to grow as a journalist, to cover a wide range of stories and to gain the confidence and competence needed to do well at this level. I’m grateful for the journey.” That journey changed forever on 9/11. Rather than focus on the devastation, Pitts sees the heroism displayed by so many as evidence of God’s grace. “I don’t believe 9/11 changed my faith per se, it only strengthened it,” Pitts said. “Despite the many horrors of that day, I witnessed how strong and kind people can be in the midst of the worst circumstances. The countless acts of courage and goodness by firefighters, police officers, construction workers and the thousands of volunteers from across this great country who showed up in the hours and days after 9/11 speaks to a grace beyond earthly understanding. Just as a human being, those were long days both physically and emotionally, but my faith sustained me.” Long days are part and parcel of working at “60 Minutes,” where Pitts said he is routinely impressed at the dedication to thorough investigative journalism. “The men and women of ‘60 Minutes’ work incredibly hard. I know that sounds pretty simple, but I’m continually impressed with the amount of time and sincere commitment the people at ’60 Minutes’ put into their work. There is a great sense of pride amongst the staff. And every story is driven by the information. It is a simple goal and perhaps one of the highest and hardest to reach in journalism.” Pitts’ faith is not a source of conflict in the multi-cultural environment he works. “My colleagues who know me well respect my faith. I have colleagues of many different faiths and I am respectful of theirs. My job as a journalist is to seek truth. That is not in conflict with my faith.” Nor is there any chance, with all he’s been through, will it be anything other than a cornerstone. “My faith has always been a great comfort. It has kept me hopeful. It has allowed me the space to believe better days are ahead. And perhaps most importantly it lets me know I am never alone. It’s given me an optimistic spirit.” Links: Byron Pitts’ CBS biography: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/10/09/broadcasts/main524933.shtml “Step Out of Nothing”: http://bit.ly/1aeBqz

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