James Eldon Pitt passed away December 18, 2011 at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. He was 94 years old. He was born June 21, 1917 in Quanah, Texas to Emmett Everett and Patsy Loemma (Martin) Pitt. He was predeceased by his former wife, Harriett (Philmus) Pitt, his sister, Mable Clay of Quanah and Milton Pitt of Cedar Hill, Texas.
Mr. Pitt is survived by his sister, Patsy Frasier, of Grapevine, Texas; his three children, David, of Ghent, N.Y., Timothy and his wife Lisa of Putnam Valley, N.Y., Debra of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and three grandchildren, Denielle, of Washington, D.C., and Katharine and James, both of Manhattan.
Mr. Pitt’s abiding love of music brought him a measure of fame during his undergraduate days at the University of Texas, where he began to develop his talents as a jazz guitarist and singer/songwriter, performing at clubs in Austin with his big band, Jimmy Pitt’s Knights of Note, and in a campus variety show called “Time Staggers On.”
Mr. Pitt first came to New York in 1946 as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he wrote for Stars and Stripes. A year later, he joined Time magazine as a contributing editor, rising through the ranks to become the company’s first director of corporate public relations.
He often returned to Quanah to visit family and attend high school reunions.
A long-time public relations executive, he campaigned to persuade fellow PR professionals that their relevance in a democracy hinged on their willingness to address urgent social issues.
Mr. Pitt’s views about the potentially constructive role of public relations took root in 1951, when Henry R. Luce, Time’s co-founding publisher, personally assigned him to interview Everett R. Clinchy, the newly appointed head of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
The NCCJ—founded in 1928 in response to the anti-Catholic sentiments that attended Al Smith’s presidential campaign – wanted Luce to supply a young writer to prepare a brochure on the organization. The NCCJ, whose founders included Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, had recently broadened its mission, bringing diverse groups together to address interfaith divisions, race relations and social and economic injustice. It is now known as the National Conference for Community and Justice.
Mr. Pitt’s work with Clinchy marked the beginning of three decades of what he called a “rewarding and treasured collaboration.” The brochure grew into Mr. Pitt’s first book, a history of the NCCJ titled Adventures in Brotherhood (Farrar, Straus & Company 1955).
In 1967, as chairman of the New York Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, Mr. Pitt invited a succession of distinguished luncheon speakers, including New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay and the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, to discuss how public relations professionals could help shine a spotlight on the problems of the cities in an especially turbulent decade.
“Public relations practitioners have long been criticized for a failure to show sufficient interest in the world around them,” Saturday Review magazine said in an editorial at the close of his chairmanship. “Pitt’s greatest contribution is the emphasis on public service by Chapter members.”
Mr. Pitt’s efforts later earned him a PRSA Gold Anvil award.
Mr. Pitt remained active following his retirement from Time Inc., working in Washington to promote the National Program for Voluntary Action in 1969. He later returned to New York to work at the Community Service Society.
In 1963, Mr. Pitt was the chief organizer of Time magazine’s 40th anniversary dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, to which the magazine had invited virtually everyone who had ever been on its cover. The wall-to-wall celebrity gala drew 284 guests of honor, 228 media representatives and an audience of 1,668. Bob Hope, the master of ceremonies, said from the dais that “I’ve attended a few affairs in my life – but never anything like this.”
In his later years, Mr. Pitt devoted his public relations expertise to promoting the Jazz Ministry at St Peter’s Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan, where he worked closely with John Garcia Gensel, Pastor to the Jazz Community and the moving force behind the yearly church extravaganza known as All-Nite Soul.
His yearly gifts to family and friends were cleverly crafted birthday limericks or original ditties delivered over the phone to the tune of his trusty guitar. He had a happy, generous and loving soul.
A memorial service is planned.